The Sunday Times

March 28th, 2010

Science is close to erasing minds; morality will be next

‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain?” asked Macbeth. The answer may soon be yes. Last Thursday the BBC’s Today programme reported the first steps in erasing specific memories from a person’s brain. Neuroscientists are beginning to envisage plucking from the memory a rooted sorrow, in people tormented by traumatic recollections.

Admittedly these were only first steps in experiments on rats, but brain science is making giant strides. Dr Todd Sacktor of the State University of New York described how a certain protein, PKMzeta, plays a pivotal role in the consolidation of memory in the brain, and how by interrupting this process with a drug rather implausibly called ZIP, his team can make rats permanently forget an electric shock they have received. It seems to be a true erasure, he says.

Other scientists have other approaches and other ideas, but it seems that enough is known about how the brain lays down and solidifies individual memories to be able to work on ways of interfering with it.

Like many great scientific advances, this one is beginning as therapy. It is intended to help the countless people tormented by their memories, some of them unspeakable. Only the day before the Today report a Rwandan woman was talking on Radio 4 about the horrifying experiences that survivors of the Tutsi genocide cannot forget, which invade and overwhelm their minds. Most of the details she described are too horrible to repeat, let alone survive with day and night.

Some people, not surprisingly, are driven to suicide. I have always imagined that the suicide of the Italian scientist and writer Primo Levi was an attempt to pluck out the horrors rooted in his memory during the Holocaust, which he found could be done only by ending his life. It would clearly be right to offer to put a gentler end to such horrors, if it could be done safely and precisely.

However, like all extreme scientific change, memory erasure poses serious ethical questions, or will do when it becomes a practical possibility. Most obvious are the doubts it raises about identity. What has happened to us and how we remember it is central to our ideas of ourselves. That’s all too painfully obvious from watching people with dementia slowly losing any sense of who they are. And the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gives a frightening depiction of what happens when a woman deliberately erases her memory of a love affair. One should not lightly interfere — or let anyone else interfere — with the foundations of our identities.

Even so, it seems at first obviously right to use this science to relieve serious suffering, though even that might cause problems. The survivors of genocide and atrocities or high-school shootings have unquestionable rights to relief, but those who inflicted their pain may also be suffering. After all, Macbeth’s question is about Lady Macbeth, who has been driven to distraction by the blood on her hands and is certainly suffering torments. But it is doubtful whether she, or other murderers and torturers, should be relieved of the pain of their guilt.

Just as memories are essential to identity, so memories are essential to morality. Without memories of experiences of good and evil there can be no moral learning and understanding. Something forgotten is something that never happened and never made any moral difference. Forgetting is a kind of bogus innocence. Though a woman whose baby has been hacked to death in front of her has nothing to learn from that memory, for the man — or the boy — who did it, that same memory could bring its own punishment and might, perhaps, lead to repentance and understanding. It is not something he should be relieved of.

No doubt (to take a hard case) the African child soldiers, forced to do unspeakable things by their kidnappers, would prefer to be rid of their atrocious memories. But however much sympathy one has with these children, it seems to me questionable whether it would be right to allow them to erase all such memories.

That is because memories are not only personal. There is such a thing as cultural memory or folk memory, to which individual memories all contribute, and there are things that cultures perhaps should not forget. The people with guilty shared memories are legion. To refuse to remember is to deny responsibility — a well-known psychological defence mechanism. It is bad enough when individuals do it but when whole cultures are able to do it they are at risk of committing the same crimes again.

For this reason, painful though it is for generations of Germans born during and after the Nazi period, many people outside and inside Germany are determined to keep the memories of the Holocaust and the two world wars most vividly alive. By popular consent, nobody is allowed to forget.

These unspeakable memories are valuable.

It is horrifying that in China there is a growing tendency to forget the horrors of Maoism and even to restore Mao to something of his former divinity. Similarly there are reports of revisionism in Russian history teaching, airbrushing the facts of the Stalinist terror. Popular memory is being deliberately adjusted and partly erased; it is something that totalitarian regimes have done time out of mind; now, with modern communications, they can do it effectively.

In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera describes a historic moment in 1948 when the communist leader Klement Gottwald comes out onto a triumphal balcony over the Old Town Square in Prague, to announce to the nation the beginning of communist Czechoslovakia. Standing next to him is his ally Vladimir Clementis. It is cold and Clementis generously puts his own fur hat on Gottwald’s head. The party propaganda machine spews out hundred of thousands of copies of this uplifting image. But before long Clementis is denounced, hanged for treason and airbrushed from the photograph.

As George Orwell put it, in his analysis in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the manipulation of public memory, Clementis becomes an unperson. All that remains of him for posterity is his fur hat on Gottwald’s head.

The point, as Kundera writes, is that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. The same could be said of the struggle of the self against obliteration, or of morality against chaos.