Imagine purging life’s disturbing events. If you could alter or mute your worst memories would you still remain yourself?

Excerpt from the AEON essay by Lauren Gravitz, science and environment writer whose work has appeared in Discover, Nature, Nautilus, The Economist and Technology Review, among others.

Imagine you’re the manager of a café. It stays open late and the neighbourhood has gone quiet by the time you lock the doors. You put the evening’s earnings into a bank bag, tuck that into your backpack, and head home. It’s a short walk through a poorly lit park. And there, next to the pond, you realize you’ve been hearing footsteps behind you. Before you can turn around, a man sprints up and stabs you in the stomach. When you fall to the ground, he kicks you, grabs your backpack, and runs off. Fortunately a bystander calls an ambulance which takes you, bleeding and shaken, to the nearest hospital.

The emergency room physician stitches you up and tells you that, aside from the pain and a bit of blood loss, you’re in good shape. Then she sits down and looks you in the eye. She tells you that people who live through a traumatic event like yours often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition can be debilitating, resulting in flashbacks that prompt you to relive the trauma over and over. It can cause irritation, anxiety, angry outbursts and a magnified fear response. But she has a pill you can take right now that will decrease your recall of the night’s events – and thus the fear and other emotions associated with it – and guard against the potential effects of PTSD without completely erasing the memory itself.

Would you like to try it?

When Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, asked nearly 1,000 people a similar question, more than 80 per cent said: ‘No.’ They would rather retain all memory and emotion of that day, even if it came with a price. More striking was the fact that 46 per cent of them didn’t believe people should be allowed to have such a choice in the first place.

Every day, science is ushering us closer to the kind of memory erasure that, until recently, was more the province of Philip K Dick. Studies now show that some medications, including a blood-pressure drug called propranolol, might have the ability to do just what the ER doctor described – not just for new traumas, but past ones too.

Granted, that future is not yet here. Most of the time, we’re still better at subconsciously editing our own recollections than any new technology is. But with researchers working on techniques that can chisel, reconstruct and purge life’s memories, it becomes crucial to ask: do we need our real memories? What makes us believe that memory is so sacrosanct? And do memories really make us who we are?

Get the entire essay on AEON

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