The future of targeted memory manipulation

Wired Science has an interesting interview with Oxford neuroethicist Anders Sandberg about the future of drugs that can reduce the emotional impact of traumatic memories.

The interview uses the term ‘memory editing’ which is not a great label for these drugs, such as beta-blocker propranolol, which largely work by reducing the emotional ‘kick’ stored with a memory of a painful or traumatic experience when taken after the experience or during recall.

This is something that is often misreported by the mainstream media who often starting going off on one about ‘memory erasing’ drugs and the like.

However, it is also not true that propranolol solely effects the emotional aspects. Careful reading of the studies show that people treated with the compound do typically show a slight reduction in their actual memory for traumatic events.

But the interview makes the interesting point that maybe we’re a bit too focused on removing or reducing memories, the problem of inducing false memories is probably more serious: I’ve asked about memory removal ‚Äî but should the discussion involve adding memories, too?

Sandberg: People are more worried about deletion. We have a preoccupation with amnesia, and are more fearful of losing something than adding falsehoods.

The problem is that it’s the falsehoods that really mess you up. If you don’t know something, you can look it up, remedy your lack of information. But if you believe something falsely, that might make you act much more erroneously.

You can imagine someone modifying their memories of war to make them look less cowardly and more brave. Now they’ll think they’re a brave person. At that point, you end up with the interesting question of whether, in a crisis situation, they would now be brave.

Link to ‘The Messy Future of Memory-Editing Drugs’.

2 thoughts on “The future of targeted memory manipulation”

  1. As a counsellor (currently not practising due to ill health) I’ve always been worried about the issue of false memories. From what I’ve read it’s incredibly easy to tamper with memories and while this could perhaps be therapeutic there are huge risks involved, such as causing someone to “remember” that a family member abused them when this wasn’t in fact the case.
    A drug to lessen the impact of painful memories sounds very useful when those memories are stopping someone from being able to lead a happy or fulfilled life.
    By the way, I don’t comment often but I do really enjoy this blog. You have a way of picking out the essence of articles and making them interesting and readable.

  2. I’d love to know know if you’ve seen the film, NIGHTINGALE IN A MUSIC BOX, which deals with the issue, both from the perspective of creating and deleting memories.
    Much is made of the film of memories which are wrong, but arise naturally, and manufactured memories.

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