Should Parts of the Past Be Extinguished

Pathological memories - trauma, addiction, anxiety - may have a devastating impact on an individual's life. Therefore, there is an understandable excitement at the possibility of treating these conditions by manipulating the very memories that produce them. However, the notion of erasing memories carries with it a host of potential ethical problems. In the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'' individuals are able to choose "cosmetic" memory surgery to remove unwanted memories of painful life experiences or attachments. This raises the question: is it morally acceptable to remove parts of people's memories, given they are so fundamental to one's identity?

Bioethical committees have also considered the notion of the "erasing" of memories as a potentially hazardous endeavor. They have concluded that memories, however negative and distressing, are integral to one's continuity of experience. Ethically, this area is still largely controversial, and developments will depend on furthering our understanding of the effects of extinguishing memories. For example, how does inhibiting one type of memory impact on other forms of memory? It is possible that the removal of a memory itself may have psychological, and even neurobiological, consequences. However, thus far any induction of pharmacological retrograde amnesia seems limited to nondeclarative forms of memory, and as such the impact on conscious experience may be minimal. As science progresses and the sophisticated inhibition of memory becomes a reality, there may be emerging, as yet unconsidered, ethical considerations. However, we should also bear in mind that reports of the use of compounds producing anterograde amnesia like alcohol and cannabis date back thousands of years. Indeed, this seems to be one of the appealing properties of drugs of abuse. When asked in surveys, drug and alcohol users often cite the memory-impairing capacities of drugs as a pleasurable effect. Given it seems accepted that individuals erase "memories" of the present by using drugs and alcohol, will it in future be acceptable for them to erase memories of the past?

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