Memory—the ability to identify things we perceive through our senses with things that we have previously seen or heard (or touched or smelled or tasted)—is the sea in which we swim from the moment we are born until we draw our final breaths. It’s how we know what we are looking at, how we identify what we are hearing. It’s how language works and how culture does as well: the ability to read a book or to admire a work of music or art rests in our ability to contextualize the experience by bringing our memories to bear in the interpretation of the data at hand. Yet, for all this reliance on memory is basic to our ability to decipher and interpret the world, it is still more than possible to ignore its existence entirely. Indeed, somewhat in the way air is crucial to human survival and invisible, memory could not be simpler to look past. Surely no jury would ever convict someone of perjury for saying on the witness stand that he saw an accused person in a specific place and at a specific time when what is really true is that, at the specific moment that he is giving his testimony in court, he remembers having seen the accused in that specific place and at that specific time. We take what we remember of the past to be what happened; the real difference between the past and the future seems to most of us to rest precisely in that we can remember the one and only fantasize about the other. But whether our memories are more real than our fantasies…that is an entirely different question!
These were the thoughts that came to me the other week when I read an article in Nature, the weekly journal of science, about the recent work of one Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in Holland, who, together with a team of colleagues, has learned how to use electroconvulsive therapy (called ECT or sometimes electroshock therapy) not merely to treat depression and other varieties of mental illness, but actually to target and erase—the word they use is “disrupt”—patients’ memories of particularly disturbing events in their past. (If you are reading this electronically, you can access the article by clicking here.) Erasing memories cannot obviously undo the past. But if it can seriously improve the future…then the only reason not to jump on the bandwagon would have to be because there is something ignoble, perhaps even immoral, in altering what we know of the past merely to make ourselves feel better. But is there really any such a thing?
The whole procedure has to do with something called “memory reconsolidation,” which theory posits that the brain actually removes memories from memory storage banks for use, then rewrites and refiles them for subsequent use in the future. There is, therefore, a period during which the memory in active use is not actually anchored in its place in the brain’s memory bank. And what Kroes and his colleagues have discovered is that, by artfully timing the ECT treatments, it is possible to alter, or even totally to erase, memories that a patient finds devastating or distressing. A neuroscientist based at Mt. Sinai Hospital here in New York, Daniela Schiller, is cited in the Nature article as describing the results of Kroes’ work as “compelling evidence…that a window of opportunity exists to treat bad memories,” by altering or disrupting them. Whether the therapy could be fine-tuned permanently to eradicate memories that have been called up from the brain’s memory storage area to prevent them from being refiled—in effect creating a future for patients in which they will not recall horrifying events that befell them—remains to be seen. But the idea itself that the past can be “fixed,” thus altering our “the past is history/the future is fantasy” approach to reality rather dramatically, is what I find so fascinating to contemplate.
Obviously, forgetting some horrific memory could never mean that the event it references didn’t actually occur. But what will occur, possibly, is that someone unable to move forward in life because of some traumatic incident will no longer be held back by the memory of that event, a memory that will no longer exist. At first blush, that sounds like a great thing…for the patient in question and perhaps even for society in general. Or is it?
I didn’t see Michel Gondry’s 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which starred Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet and which won the Oscar for best original screenplay that year, but I’ve now read all about it. The plot centers on two people who meet on the Long Island Railroad and strike up a conversation, and then a relationship, years after both have undergone a surgical procedure to have the recollection of their two-year-long miserably unhappy relationship erased by a company that has perfected the art of targeting unhappy memories and eradicating them from the brain’s memory holdings. The plot sounds complicated—perhaps it’s easier to understand when watching the movie than when reading the plot synopsis in a Wikipedia article—but the basic principle is that two people who were unhappy are given a chance to re-invent their relationship unburdened by the recollection of their common past. On the silver screen, it sounds ideal: the potential for future happiness grows directly from the fact that unhappy lovers can no longer recall anything of their former unhappiness and are now free to begin again. Maybe I’ll see the movie. I’d actually like to see it now that I’ve read about it, but the question at the heart of the matter remains difficult for me to answer. Does the past exist as more than recollection once it passes from the present into the past? If it doesn’t, then erasing memory is tantamount to altering the past…but is that a good thing? That’s the question that troubles me and which I thought I’d write about this week.
Let’s imagine that someone was abused sexually as a child to the point at which he or she, even in adulthood, cannot form lasting relationships or find real happiness in love. If the abuser were to be brought to trial, the victim would have to testify. But what if the abuser has died in the interim so the victim can be certain that there will never be such a trial? Or what if the abuser has already been tried and found guilty, so that there could not possibly be any need for future testimony? Would it be a kindness to erase such an awful memory and, in so doing, to offer to someone crippled by an unhappy past the possibility of moving forward in life unimpeded by the recollection of bad things that once happened? Or would that not be a kindness at all, but merely a band-aid solution that would create some temporary relief from paralyzing memories but which would also make it impossible for the victim ever successfully to work through the factors holding him or her back from finding happiness in life in a truly meaningful way? It’s not that easy a question even to formulate, let alone honestly to answer.
Nor can I contemplate this question without referencing the Shoah. The brutality, the violence, the unspeakable cruelty, the unimaginable suffering that the Nazis inflicted on their victims—survivors wrestle with their recollections of these horrors every single day of their lives. Some have learned to live with their memories and, by successfully wrestling the worst of their demons to the ground, have come to live normal, happy lives. But what of those who, even all these years later, are still paralyzed by their recollections? Would it be a service or a disservice to erase those memories? Would that be setting such people free…or would it effectively prevent them from ever healing by denying them the possibility of working past the trauma by confronting it purposefully and meaningfully?
Years ago, when we lived in Vancouver, I heard a CBC interview with a child survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, a reign of terror directed against members of the Tutsi tribe that cost as many as 800,000 innocents their lives. The child described the murder of his entire family in such flat, even tones that he sounded as though he were reading from a textbook, and the lack of emotion in his voice as he described the specifics of his parents’ and siblings’ torture and murder was beyond chilling. He sounded calm, but there was a kind of deadness to his voice that, even after all these years, stays with me. From time to time, I wonder what became of that boy. He was a little boy in 1994 when the slaughter in Rwanda took place. Now he must be in his mid-twenties, perhaps a bit older. Has he found any peace? Has life returned to his voice? Has he moved past the horror of his own memories to find the courage to build a life not rooted solely in the recollection of terror and horror? I don’t remember his name. I have no way to trace him. I’m not even exactly sure when exactly the interview took place. But I wonder…would he be better off not remembering the murder of his own parents—which he witnessed from some sort of attic in which he was hiding under some blankets? Or would that be murdering them again, this time not by taking them from the world but by taking them from the memory banks of the sole witness to their deaths? What exactly is that poor boy’s responsibility to his parents? And where exactly does that responsibility segue into his responsibility to carry on their legacy by getting over his own misery and creating a family of his own, one in which he can grant his parents’ posthumous grandchildren to carry their legacy forward into the future?
Every Shelter Rocker knows the lesson of the Baal Shem Tov inscribed on our Shoah memorial to the effect that the path to redemption lies through remembrance. That sentiment supposes that memories may best be understood collectively as the form the past must take if it is suitably to provide a platform for building a future. In national terms, that is surely so. But is it as true with respect to individuals? Do I have a moral obligation to remember everything that I have ever witnessed, everything that ever happened to me? We think of the past as real and as the future as unreal, but the past doesn’t exactly exist either…except within the realm of memory and artifact. But artifacts are mute and our sense of history is thus solely a function of our ability to remember the past. We must, therefore, remember…if we wish the future to be built on the past in a positive, productive way. Forgetting the past would thus be the mental equivalent of hiding from a bully rather than facing one’s tormentor face on, of lathering salve over a wound rather than cleaning it with the kind of astringent that stings terribly when applied but which also leaves it clean and ready to heal.
Like everybody else in the world, I have some memories that even today cause me pain—words spoken in haste, actions I took without thinking through their implications, moments that I acted basely or in direct contradiction to the virtues I claim (when anyone will listen) as my own. Some of these are merely irritating to recall, but there are some that even now make me cringe with regret. In this, we are all alike. But the way to grow forward is not to forget, not to “disrupt” our memories of even the least happy past. The way to grow forward in life is to face the pain of the past—of both the self-inflicted variety and the kind inflicted upon us by others—and, in so doing, to find the courage to become the men and women we wish ourselves to be. That is growth! And it is precisely in that sense that remembrance can lead to redemption…of the individual and of society in general.