February 19, 2012 6:15 AM   Subscribe

The forgetting pill: Can it erase painful memories forever? What about politically inconvenient memories? Will the act of remembering will become a choice?
posted by Obscure Reference (50 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This is awesome, it is a discussion of the far future. For a fictional opposite take, see Black Mirror: The Entire History of You where everyone has their memories permanently recorded & available, and before boarding a plane you have to play back your last week to the TSA agent who does face recognition on everyone you saw.
posted by Tom-B at 6:22 AM on February 19, 2012

Frankly if I could give this pill to everyone who knew me between the ages of twelve and eighteen I think the world would be a better place.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:32 AM on February 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

This is awesome

I beg to differ. (assuming you mean being able to erase memories). I have pretty bad dissociative disorders, and don't remember much of anything before high school. It's hell. It was even worse before i found the main reason why, and was heavily self harming. Maybe if it's a memory you chose to forget, that isn't so bad, there won't be such repercussions, but it's not even remotely enjoyable hearing your family tell stories about you that sound like someone else.

It's not even getting into the area of having black ops types or even cops or politicians doing sketchy things that could even get to the level of war crimes, taking the pill to forget the crimes they did. No need to bother lying, they will forget they even did it.
posted by usagizero at 6:38 AM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

"To delete the memory, researchers would administer a drug that blocks PKMzeta and then ask the patient to recall the event again."

This makes me nervous because of ironic processing theory: "whereby an individual's deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts ... render those thoughts more persistent."

If you gave me a memory-nuke pill and told me to think about my bad memory, I would instead begin to worry about thinking about an important memory (a wedding, my dog, my name, etc). So that would be the thing I was thinking about, wouldn't it?

Then I would have my bad memory and wouldn't be able to remember my dog.
posted by dgaicun at 6:38 AM on February 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

"Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders."
posted by Fizz at 6:40 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd

posted by afx237vi at 6:47 AM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

ironic processing theory: "whereby an individual's deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts ... render those thoughts more persistent."

Know to laypeople as the Stay Puft Effect.
posted by distressingly thick sheets at 6:48 AM on February 19, 2012 [15 favorites]

In general, I think what happens to us forms us and makes us who we are. However, I think there are certain circumstances where this could be useful, specifically in the case of PTSD. I had an extremely terrifying airplane flight that forever changed the way I fly. I used to love flying and even loved turbulence, but because of this one experience, I get extremely agitated whenever I fly. I wouldn't be surprised if one day I have a heart attack. I would LOVE to be able to forget this traumatic even that happened, so long as it somehow removed the PTSD-like symptoms I experience when flying. It's simply not something I need to remember. It didn't make me a stronger person, it was not some valuable learning experience. It was just traumatic.
posted by PigAlien at 6:50 AM on February 19, 2012

Screw forgetting, I do that enough already. Where can I get an injection of PKMZeta?
posted by Riki tiki at 6:50 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

How do you get everyone else involved in that 'silly bar pub naked dancing incident' to take the pill?
posted by sammyo at 6:59 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Will the act of remembering will become a choice?

Become? Clearly you don't have children
posted by IndigoJones at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2012

Hell yeah, Riki Tiki. Get a big dose of that stuff and then, I don't know, read the encyclopedia or something.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2012

VS the data collection efforts on people that are never forgotten.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:05 AM on February 19, 2012

"All it took was a single injection of a PKMzeta inhibitor called zeta-interacting protein, or ZIP, before the rats forgot all about their aversion. The rats went back to guzzling down the stuff."

This seems weird to me. My understanding is that proteins do not readily cross the blood-brain barrier. Would injected ZIP actually be available in the CNS? I'd be surprised if it did. So, if not, what's the mechanism here? Or were the researchers injecting directly into the cerebrospinal fluid?
posted by compartment at 7:46 AM on February 19, 2012

It's a moot point for the Facebook generation because erasing your own memory with a pill would probably be far easier technically than having one's entire profile and history removed.
posted by gman at 8:10 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, for those interested in the potential legal issues that surround memory-altering therapies, here's an interesting article from 2006.

I skimmed some of the paper, and it has a few interesting bits. Here's a relevant quote that summarizes some of the ethical/legal dilemmas:

"Assume, however, that propranolol or a future memory-dampening drug dampens both informational and emotional aspects of memories. If a witness to a recent gruesome crime uses such a drug, it will have two effects: First, it will ease the witness’s suffering and help him resume a normal life. Second, it will reduce the socially-valuable information contained in the witness’s memories—information that may be vitally important to prosecuting the perpetrator and protecting others from harm. These two effects reveal a tradeoff that memory dampening may pose between our individual autonomy interests in controlling what happens to our bodies and society’s interest in preserving evidence that benefits others."
posted by compartment at 8:15 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, let's wipe out the memories of those in the Sudan, and the kids in Afghanistan and those living in Soweto and….
....we could start all over again.
posted by what's her name at 8:31 AM on February 19, 2012

Become? Clearly you don't have children.

Only 2 that I recall . . .
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:31 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did you just flashy-thing me?
posted by Foosnark at 8:40 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it a pill or a Z-Pack-style series of pills? Because if you have to take several, you're likely to forget what you're doing and leave the course of treatment incomplete.
posted by Shane at 8:59 AM on February 19, 2012

Kirk: Damn it, Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 9:02 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

And does it come in an extra-strength version for severe trauma?
posted by Shane at 9:02 AM on February 19, 2012

Isn't this what alcohol is for?
posted by cjorgensen at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are treatments for trauma, even pretty severe trauma which don't involve memory wipeout. EMDR for example.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2012

Flagged as a double. Am I the only one NOT popping pills here?
posted by klarck at 9:31 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

But can it get rid of memories of memories? (I remember getting freaked out last night when I thought about last month's accident). And memories of memories or memories (I remember remembering freaking out that night when I thought about last month's accident).

posted by ShooBoo at 9:47 AM on February 19, 2012

Will the act of remembering will become a choice?

Take a look back at history. It's been a choice for a long time.
posted by New England Cultist at 10:11 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember when reading about the crazy LSD experiments the government was doing back in the day, there was a short list of things they Wanted To Be Able To Do, and one of them was the ability to get their own good guys to forget stuff they have done for the sake of security. It would be interesting to know exactly how interesting the spookmasters find this research. The article mentions that apparently some dude 40+ years ago managed to wipe memories with careful electroconvulsive shocks. What are the odds there are governments out there right now with a working neuralyzer?
posted by floam at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

And how do they know if the mice actually forgot what happened, or if the memory is still there but the conditioning and response to the stimulus has been nullified? I'd like to see what happens when they try to get a rat to forget how to get through a maze.
posted by floam at 10:16 AM on February 19, 2012

Will the act of remembering will become a choice?

It'll probably become corporate owned. Since that soda commercial gave you a memory, you'll legally have no right to that particular memory. In fact, if you insist on keeping that memory, you'll be copyright violation and charged a hefty fine.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:35 AM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

Read "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale," Philip K. Dick's short story. (Or, for the reading-impaired, you can watch the not-too-crappy movie version, Total Recall, starring the Governator.)
posted by kozad at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2012

We can remember to forget it for you pills, available wholesale.
posted by item at 10:48 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

So it's not Gleemonex, then. Sounds dangerous anyway.
posted by droplet at 10:55 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep that shit away from me.
posted by ZaneJ. at 11:28 AM on February 19, 2012

Chthulu who? I'm perfectly sane now, bite me, monsters!

Actually, you don't need this pill for the social benefits of forgetting crimes, state secrets, etc. You only need to make people believe such a pill exists.

New research is showing that every time we recall an event, the structure of that memory in the brain is altered in light of the present moment, warped by our current feelings and knowledge.

The problem with getting someone to forget is that you'd probably lose the reflexive skill set as well. Someone shoots at me, throws a punch, what is my response? Well, my biochemical response is elevated adrenal levels, increased heart rate, etc. etc. That is coupled with memories of being shot at/punched before but also with acting in a disciplined manner through those actions.

So what would be the response, after taking this pill, to new trauma?
In contrast to Chthulu knowlege, I think what doesn't kill you does make you stronger in that regard.
...of course, some things do actually kill you.
And metaphorically as well. Someone who flips out, say someone who has a panic attack or episode of some sort - typically they're less able to deal with that biochemically.
- and I'm in no way a doctor or psychiatrist but I have been in a lot of situations, and with people I myself have trained, under extreme stress.
The biochemistry, at least where an imbalance doesn't exist in the first place, can be overcome and alloyed with discipline and pattern responses such that it is this that prevents trauma.

I read a William Gibson story once, forgot what it was (Hinterlands maybe?) about some astronauts who find this portal into other places in the universe. But it's incredibly traumatic and the few people who come back (and they come back with stuff like the cure for cancer, which is why we keep sending them) come back suicidally insane.
In order to reap the benefits and prevent them from killing themselves immediately, they create a sort of hippie ashram thing in space. Good food, good drugs, good company, in a serene environment - coupled with critical incident stress debriefing some time later - helps them immensely.

And I've seen this too. You don't take someone out of something then make them talk about it over and over and over trying to get them to deal. You get them laid (do NOT get them drunk) get back into a routine, amp up the leisure part, catch a few more movies, play games, grab-ass, fart around in the woods, swim, all low key but fun stuff.
Then, if they want to talk about it, talk. Not en masse, just the little stuff.

What damns us is our mind demanding an explanation for this huge chemical rush and demanding a pattern from the environment so it can predict and avoid. (Hey, this traumatic thing happened, I want to know every bit of data so I can see it coming and avoid it later! So I'll mark it with this huge biochemical response whenever we think about it).

Makes evolutionary sense I guess. But in so many ways it's not natural that we don't have a "flight" option anymore.
Society is everywhere. Traumatic events are caused not by tigers, or bears or predators but other humans. There's nowhere to run.

And in some sense, it's completely crazy. Societal demands I mean. War aside - consider: you're in a car accident. You're traumatized. Booze is cheap and legal (but extraordinarily bad for your mental health).
What do we come up with? Well, we just gotta have our cars and booze. We just gotta have mores that give rise to conditions for sexual assaults.
So here's a pill to make you forget the whole thing and think it's ok.
We might remember that we've forgotten, at least as individuals, but society does an excellent job of forgetting that we've forgotten. At least judging from the history of war.

And I've seen THX1138 already.
Ironic. Lucas added CGI and eradicated the original copies.

No, thanks. Cast me back into Tarterus with Briareus and the boys.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:37 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

So from what I could glean from that article, it sounds like the process involves inhibiting proteins from forming when a memory is recalled, via chemical intervention. I feel about that the way I feel about Botox: I understand the logic behind the process, but you are literally poisoning yourself to do it.

While I, like everyone, have things that I sure as hell wish I could forget, I worry that if this kind of thing gets off the ground, the time it takes in working out the kinks in a real world application will result in tragic news stories about "Memento" style memory issues in early adopters.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 12:06 PM on February 19, 2012

They're reintroducing Mandrax? I loved those little fuckers...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:08 PM on February 19, 2012

Pills are unnecessary. Nature takes care of the whole forgetting thing. Just wait a few years.
posted by Cranberry at 12:19 PM on February 19, 2012

I thought 'they' decided a hot wire directly into one part of the brain was most effective?
posted by BlueHorse at 12:24 PM on February 19, 2012

The original ending for eternal sunshine of the spotless mind was in the far future, and Kate Winslet was old, and going back into the clinic for the twentieth or thirtieth time to erase her memory of Joel, because they kept getting back together again.

You can erase your memory of mistakes, but you can't erase the part of you that makes them.
posted by empath at 12:51 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Two points from someone vaguely familiar with this literature:
* Those who are expressing concerns about the use of protein synthesis inhibitors in the brain are right on the money, if I understand correctly. They do not pass the blood brain barrier. Besides, at their current level of specificity we rather much would not want them to be administered systemically anyway, as they're not the type of drug you want running around your whole system. Much like with the rats, they would need to be injected locally (which could cause brain damage) and I'm not so sure we've determined that PKMz inhibition would not be neurotoxic to some degree given its rich set of interactions with other proteins. It's certainly possible that they'll someday develop a very specific protein-synthesis inhibitor, but drugs like that are the dream of all pharmacology.

* I've read one of the Brunet propranolol-therapy group, and I must say that I'm cautious for a number of reasons. First and foremost, their recollection protocol basically seems to be a slightly-modified version of PTSD therapy gold standard prolonged exposure therapy (refined and popularized by Edna Foa) which already results in remission for a substantial proportion of people treated. It's not surprising that their protocol shows some effect as they're already incorporating the essential elements of an evidence-based treatment. I'd really like to see the results of an RCT of (Brunet Protocol x Placebo Brunet Protocol x PE Therapy) to see if there's an additive effect of the propranolol co-administration over and above the PE treatment.
posted by Keter at 1:48 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

That was very interesting - thanks for posting.

> were the researchers injecting directly into the cerebrospinal fluid?

Compartment, you're right about the blood-brain barrier. Some small molecules can get across it but proteins have a hard time. From the article: "Right now, researchers have to inject their obliviating potions directly into the rodent brain". Of course, systemic administration of protein synthesis inhibitors is a sledgehammer to the body so that's not so great either, and they probably inject those intrathecally even if the inhibitors are able to cross the BBB.

It seems like the "forgetting pill" that this work might lead to wouldn't cause someone to forget everything about a traumatic event, just how upset they were by it. You'd still remember you were in the Iraq War, or in Manhattan on 9/11, or a car crash etc, and you'd remember it was a terrible thing, but you wouldn't be devastated by reliving the emotions every time you thought about it. Which still has plenty of dystopian potential, but it's not wiping the hard drive. The article suggests that erasing a memory completely would require excising it from many different areas of the brain, like the visual cortex, auditory cortex, amygdala, etc, and that would be extremely hard. Excellent dystopian science fiction, but real-world evil values "cheap" over "elegant" any day. There are much cheaper ways to encourage people to forget stuff (see: Orwell's stories, Fox News).

I found Smedleyman's comment about PTSD recovery very interesting. It seems like the standard Prolonged Exposure Therapy is a rather brutal way to help people get over traumatic events (not that I have any experience with PTSD, but reliving unpleasant things over and over is pretty awful in itself). If you could induce a sense of happiness or serenity before diving into the bad memories, whether by drugs or by doing pleasant things with your buddies, you could gradually overwrite some of the emotional associations that get reinforced when you relive the trauma. That was another interesting point in the article: the reconsolidation process reinforces whatever you're feeling at the moment you revive the memory, even though it's temporally and spatially separated from the actual event.

This also explains something that had puzzled me for a long time: people have reported that taking MDMA or LSD helped them overcome certain types of mental health problems like depression long after the drug had cleared from their bodies. Biochemically this made no sense, but if reconsolidation of memories incorporates whatever you're feeling at the moment (not what you felt originally), then you could wear a new groove into your thought patterns. Interesting stuff ...
posted by Quietgal at 2:39 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Jenny Diski in her review of the the book "Memory: Fragments of a Modern History" in LRB discusses this in an interestingly personal but thorough way.

I quote
"Fiction takes a non-specialist and usefully cavalier interest in the more intriguing arguments of science, and the dangers of remembering and forgetting are staples of science fiction. The identity terrors in much of Philip K. Dick’s work and the movies based on it (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Blade Runner; We Can Remember It for You Wholesale – Total Recall), and Pope’s ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ revisioned by Charlie Kaufman for the cinema, celebrate the humanity of human beings as the accumulation of their experience."

and finishes with
"and Winter suggests the possibility that we might be responding negatively to memory editing in much the same way as people objected to pain-killing and anaesthetics when they were first discovered. My almost automatic resistance to the notion of drug-induced benevolent forgetting is perhaps simply proof of the influence of my time and culture. We might need to fear our memories more and develop a new appreciation of our repressive unconscious."
posted by jan murray at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2012

Memory erasure by very high concentrations of ZIP may not be due to PKM-zeta.

John Lisman is pretty darned well respected learning and memory guy, but the article is paywalled (or whatever) and I'm not at work, and it's still a prepub.

I think that this is the paper that the Wired article is based on. There's a link to a Free Fulltext to the actual paper.

compartment - yeah, the rats had canulae implanted directly into their brains and the ZIP (or scrambled) peptide was injected directly 1.0 mm above the gustatory neocortex. I'm uncertain how efficient these peptides are uptaken by cells (given that PKM zeta is an intracellular protein). For some other peptides, it works just fine. Other times, when we do these kinds of things by in utero electroporation of a plasmid designed to express the peptide of interest directly inside a bunch of neurons and we can turn on and off the expression of the peptide.

Taking a "memory removal pill" is a huge stretch. We are not at the level of being able to determine which synapse or sets of synapses are associated with a particular memory. No way; we aren't even sure how memories are encoded although we have a lot of hypotheses, very interesting observations, and very useful (if extraordinarily blunt) tools.

One experiment, that I don't *think* has been done, is to train rats to learn two different things. For example, taste aversion (I'm not sure which part of the brain is responsible, maybe the amygdala?) and also train for place-preference fear conditioning (which I think is the amygdala, too).

Give the high-dose ZIP and see if one, or both of the learned behaviours is removed.

This is kind of like hitting someone on the head hard enough that they develop retrograde amnesia.
posted by porpoise at 3:15 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I feel about that the way I feel about Botox: I understand the logic behind the process, but you are literally poisoning yourself to do it."

What is a thread on memory erasing technology without an Eternal Sunshine quote?:

"Is there any risk of brain damage?"

"Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage...
posted by dgaicun at 4:22 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd like to forget the whole thing.
posted by rain at 5:11 PM on February 19, 2012

Will the act of remembering will become a choice?

A choice ? It's why I drink.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:29 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one who immediately thought of Arrested Development's Gob Bluth and the "forgettiness" pills?

Maeby: Don't you see? I drugged him not to go all the way with him.
George Michael: Well, I think even the anti-drug people are going to be okay with that.

Tobias: Gob, this is Flunitrazepam. It's a roofie.
Lucille: Those are illegal!
Gob: Shut up, Mom. Don't make me give you another one of these.
posted by kinetic at 3:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

We can forget if for you wholesale.... (tribute for PKD fans..)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:28 AM on February 20, 2012

Porpoise, Quietgal, and Keter: Thanks for the thoughtful and well-informed comments. They add quite a bit to the discussion.
posted by compartment at 12:05 PM on February 20, 2012

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