Of Mice And Memory

I heard this story on the NPR today about how these scientists may have figured out a way to erase fearful memories from the minds of mice as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.  In the article, they said, “The trick was to eliminate the protein soon after a fearful incident,” so we’re not quite there yet, but maybe someday we will be. If we can erase bad memories from mice, it probably won’t be long before we can do the same with humans. And it won’t be too long after that until we can remove memories from long ago. And by “we,” I mean some very awesome scientists.

When hearing this story, my first thought was, “That’s neat! Yay science!” Then in that predictably point A to point B way that we boring humans always think, I started thinking about me. I love thinking about me. I do it all the time, even when I really want to be thinking about science and the cool things they can do with mice nowadays. So, in my linear fashion, I thought about whether or not I would want fearful memories erased from my organic hard drive if given the chance.

I have some horrifying, terrible, haunting, traumatic and not very nice memories stored in my brainpan. I don’t really want them there. They take up space that could be used for nice things like puppies and daffodils and sunsets. Some of these memories, the worst ones really, are from when I was just a wee lass. This mental clutter helped shape and mold who I am as a person. I hate that fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. I would not be who I am without them.

However, say some fancy scientist with his brain moleculizer eraser doohickey went fiddling around in my noggin and deleted all the files I no longer want, covering over them with ones and zeros until they no longer existed, would I still be me?

When I received a very serious blow to my very serious head from a very heavy object (you can read about that here if you’re curious), I was most certainly not the me that I had been before and I never was that version again. Initially, I couldn’t function as any person let alone as the version of me that I had known up to that point. The thing about memory problems though is that I don’t really remember what I was like before. I only know that I wasn’t the same person I had been because people who knew me before and after said so. My point is, I know first hand how lacking certain memories can change a person.

A detailed artist rendering of what a mouse undergoing fear conditioning might look like.

Not to disparage mice, but it seems like it would be difficult to tell how their personalities were affected. I’m sure those were some very nice mice before they put them through fear conditioning (fear conditioning sounds like positively the worst kind of conditioning), but, if mice even have personalities, were they influenced by the missing data? Did they come out on the other side as homogenized mice full of sugar and spice and everything nice? If you take away the foundation, would the house still stand?

I think I’d like to keep my foundational memories, unpleasant as they are (and they are creeping up on my consciousness, begging for attention as I write this) because they are foundational. However, if something went horribly awry for me as an adult, I might like to eject that. For example, if I was raped and beaten tomorrow, I would most assuredly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and I would certainly live in fear for quite a long time afterwards, possibly forever. If that were the case, once the suspect has been caught and there was no need for testifying, etc., wouldn’t it be better for that memory to just disappear? Wouldn’t it be better for all of the soldiers who have gone through horrible things in war to come home and live life as if it hadn’t happened?

So many questions. I’d also like to know whether or not you’d have memory of having had the memory. Once the details of the memory in question are gone, would you still remember having had that memory in a more general sort of way? For instance, I have a section of my brain where the bad things dwell. I know where they live and who lives there. Even if I don’t think about the memories themselves, I have a catalog of what’s stored in that vault. I can think about them intangibly as if they were a price list. If you removed certain memories from that price list, would you even remember having had something there or would that space just not exist for you?

A detailed artist rendering of what a mouse having its unhappy memories removed might look like.

I haven’t come to any conclusions on the matter. I’d like to know more about the procedure before I put down a deposit. I’m fond of being me. If being me means that I had to keep all of those things that go bump in the night and won’t allow me to sleep, then so be it. That said, I think it’s great that scientists are working on things like this, even if poor little mice are conditioned to fear (it doesn’t seem like much of a hardship for them since we can just wipe that unpleasantness from their little brains anyway). There are too many people living with fear. There are too many people who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’m sure there’s some moral or religious argument that should be raised here, but being irreligious and not especially moral (I did just summarily dismiss the suffering of the mice), I can find no objection on those grounds. By the way, lest anyone make any assumptions on my character, the fact that I am an atheist is not a causal factor to my degree of rectitude; it’s merely a coincidence. Even though I don’t have a moral compass (as those nutty Christians call it), I might be able find objection in where the line is drawn. Some nasty government (probably mine) could use this to make people do mean things and then just erase the memories.

What constitutes a memory horrific enough to warrant deletion? Is having a bad hair day a traumatic enough memory to have it removed? I think not. This kind of brain meddling technology should only be used in severe cases of violence where erasing those memories could significantly change someone’s life for the better. Humans need to tread very carefully with scientific advancements like this. Still – and I mean this from the bottom of my cold, wizened, amoral heart – go, science!