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Should we delete our memories?

Published: 29th July, 2010 at 00:00
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Research is revealing that our memories aren't as sturdy as we think. If it becomes possible to chemically delete our memories - perhaps of a war-time incident - is it right to, or would we be deleting our history?


Dr Anders Sandberg

Dr Anders Sandberg, Computational neuroscientist, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

"There is one strong moral reason to weaken fear associations: to improve human well-being. Having accurate, truthful memories may be good for a person’s identity and ability to act morally – and could even be a moral obligation – like in the case of being a witness or an accountable political leader. But, I think, these factors are still far less important than the opportunity to live a healthy life.


PTSD can be profoundly disabling, so weakening fear associations (or even erasing the bad memory itself) could be morally permissible if the intervention could allow the person to live a full life.

I’m not saying that editing memories should be taken lightly. But our natural memory is already imperfect, biased and in many cases, made up. So, perhaps, we shouldn’t see it as anything totally different from the editing of our own memory we already do every day."


Dr Emily Holmes

Dr Emily Holmes, Clinical neuropsychologist, University of Oxford

"Trauma is horrible and awful, but unfortunately it’s a part of life. We have to remember that many people survive traumas without getting PTSD. This suggests that it is possible to avoid developing PTSD and that we have to learn how to survive without being affected in a pathological way.

It might be nice to think that you could ‘wipe the memory away’, but I really don’t think that will work. An example of why wiping away the trauma itself won’t necessarily help can be found in drug rape. People who have been raped under rohypnol can’t remember what’s happened. That can lead to horrible consequences. It’s horrible to not know what’s happened because your mind just makes things up, and that can be even worse. No-one who’s experienced a trauma or anyone that works in trauma, would have wanted a trauma to have happened. But in successful therapy, when the patient is able to be well again, they aren’t asking for the past memories to be deleted.

They understand that it’s important to know your personal history and what’s happened to you. Imagine, for example, the veterans from the First World War. That was a horrible, horrible time. But would they rather erase those three years of their lives completely?


I think someone who’s ill will tell you that they would like to erase those bad memories given the chance. But once they’ve recovered, I doubt they would want to remove the part that illness played in their lives."


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