A Spotless Mind: Good or Bad?
Science Imitates Hollywood and sets off a poignant debate
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to delete a painful memory—just obliterate it?
Maybe you saw the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of the wackier products of writer Charlie Kaufman’s imagination. Its premise was that people could erase selective memories to eliminate the distress they incur.
I loved the film. I found it funny, absurd, and profoundly moving. What its protagonists (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) perceive is that not only do they cling to their most difficult memories but they also tend to repeat their past mistakes, even as they forget the life lessons they believe to have learned from them. It’s like Groundhog Day (1993) with a realistic twist.
But guess what? Scientists have discovered a drug that can potentially efface memories of profoundly painful, even traumatic events. As Richard A. Friedman wrote in the New York Times:(link is external)
“Who among us hasn’t wanted to let go of anxiety or forget about fear? Phobias, panic attacks and disorders like post-traumatic stress are extremely common: 29 percent of American adults will suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives.”
Well, there may be a cure for that. And its name is propranolol.
Studies show that if someone who has a phobia—let’s say spiders—takes this drug at the moment they are exposed to that fear, it vanishes. Friedman explains the process:
“Propranolol blocks the effects of norepinephrine in the brain. This chemical, which is similar to adrenaline, enhances learning, so blocking it disrupts the way a memory is put back in storage after it is retrieved—a process called reconsolidation.”
Things get a lot trickier in Spotless Mind, in which both protagonists undergo an all-night brain treatment to erase the memory of their failed relationship. The problem is that the treatment works. Both come to regret their decision to erase the memories of each other and scramble to recover them. Despite the painfulness of their parting, neither wants to let go of the bittersweet memory of their intimate involvement. Call it love.
Fear of spiders seems relatively minor in relation to human heartbreak. But think also about the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder in recent years—not only among veterans returning from war but also among those (many of them women) who have suffered sexual and/or domestic abuse on the homefront.
We are hyper-sensitized to stories of trauma and their disabling effects. We hear that survivors are subject to recurring nightmares, panic attacks resulting from “triggers,”social isolation, depression and suicidal impulses.
I do not doubt any of these findings. Rather, I think that these stories may help to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the complex (and barely understood) processes of memory.
Contemporary neuroscience tells us that every time we retrieve and relive a personal memory, we revise it in terms of the context of its retrieval. Say you hear a song that reminds you of a moment of special significance in your past. The instant in which you recall this memory intermingles with the circumstance that evoked it. As a result, the reminiscence that will now be re-stored in your long-term memory will bear traces of what is happening here and now. The present, as a result, continues to revise the past. This is not a matter of personal choice or self-determination. It’s a brain function that happens regardless of what we consciously wish or desire.
I wonder if the success of exposure therapy (an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) may work in part like this. I’ve never tried this technique. But I can imagine how reliving a traumatic experience (such as a rape) in a controlled environment, where you can summon a response other than helplessness and terror, might help form new associations about what happened. It may mute the primary memory’s traumatic effects. I can also see how this therapy might not be enough. Friedman reports that it works in only about half of the PTSD patients who try it. Some may even experience the re-living of the past as an excruciating replay of the original trauma.