Two 2004 films explored the power of memories and the possibilities of erasing them or manipulating them.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Jim Carey and Kate Winslet portray lovers who have taken advantage of a technology that allows people to have their painful memories erased. Following their breakup, Winslet’s character has her memories of the relationship erased and Carey’s character follows suit but, while the process is underway, he has second thoughts. The movie prompts interesting questions. If we could have our painful memories erased, would we? Should we? Do we lose something more significant than our pain if we lose our painful memories?
The other film is The Final Cut starring Robin Williams. In this movie, people have a microchip implanted that records all the occurrences in person’s life. When someone dies, that chip is removed so that a montage of events from the deceased loved one’s life can be created for his or her family. Williams plays a “cutter,” one of those responsible for editing those memories into a suitable form. Again, interesting questions are prompted. Would we want our memories projected on a screen for other folks, even those who love us, to see? What ethical dilemmas are posed as the cutter decides what to leave in and what to leave out? How accurate a legacy is created when only selective memories are preserved?
Those are just movie plots, of course, and thus have little to do with reality, you might be thinking.
Last month, a story was posted at HealthDay.com entitled “Study Probes Roots of Fearful Memories.” The story reported,
New research is helping scientists understand why frightening, traumatic memories go so deep and linger so long in the human brain.
A study in rats shows that a powerful neurochemical called norepinephrine is released to help the brain deal with trauma -- but it also "imprints" an emotional fear tagged to the memory of that event.
These emotionally loaded memories could help cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said a team at Harvard University. But the findings may also provide a target for treatment, they added.
So, norepinephrine helps our brains to deal with a fear-producing event but at the same time causes the brain to retain the memory of that event for the long term. One researcher “believes that blocking norepinephrine production as soon as possible after a traumatic event might prevent PTSD, because these events would be blocked from becoming long-term memories.”
On the one hand, we should welcome any treatment for severe emotional or mental distress that is crippling someone’s life.
On the other hand, we can easily envision the possible misuse of such treatments. Will people want to use them to try to erase or block all painful memories, a la the two movies mentioned above?
Personally, there are events in my life the memories of which I would be tempted to erase if I could. On the other hand, some of the most painful events in my life have turned out to have some of the most positive formative influence on my development. It might not be good for me to forget all the bad things. If all my memories are good memories, how accurate a portrayal of my life is that? Do I want to remember and to draw from an edited version of my life?
Again, there is a difference between a clinical pathology and other kinds of painful memories and I recognize that.
Still, in the grace of God, it is possible for all the events of our lives, the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, to come together to give us meaning and purpose. When we understand that, our memories—even the painful ones—have the potential to become a blessing rather than a curse.