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We Are Our Memories

Posted: 04/07/09 01:55 PM ET

What is a memory? Where's its locus? Where is it situated? The New York Times addresses the subject today in an article entitled "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory."

How on earth can a clump of tissue possibly capture and store everything -- poems, emotional reactions, locations of favorite bars, distant childhood scenes? The idea that experience leaves some trace in the brain goes back at least to Plato's Theaetetus metaphor of a stamp on wax, and in 1904 the German scholar Richard Semon gave that ghostly trace a name: the engram.
The implications are fascinating and certainly deserve further exploration. It's beyond amazing this conflation of mind and brain. To think that a thought, perspective or recollection is located within a brain fissure or lobe inspires in me a cosmic "Wow!"


We've been inundated with articles and studies touting herbs and drugs that can enhance our memory. But as a frustrated neuroscientist, I have long enjoyed this question: If we could surgically or chemically ablate toxic memory, should we? Ethically, that is.

There are memories and there are nightmares. There are memories à la Streisand and then there are the horrors of the Holocaust and sexual attack seared in victims' minds. Certainly I think that no one is contemplating chemically "bowdlerizing" positive recollections, the talk seems to center around the artificial expurgation of bad memory, viz. trauma and the like. But trauma makes us who we are. But is that necessarily a good thing?

Elie Wiesel implores the world never to forget the Holocaust. What if Wiesel's memory had been "corrected" after his liberation? What would the world look like today without his eloquence, without his indefatigable courage to warn and remind? Ah, to "re-mind."

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Santayana warned. And as the Times article notes, "If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories -- and a healthy dread of them -- form the foundation of a moral conscience."

But when traumatic memories cripple and can be expunged, when addictive urges can be excised chemically, when emotionally paralytic childhood trauma can be washed away, how are these examples and possibilities ethically shelved? And therein lies the dilemma.

Who are we but our memories? Such is the tragedy seen in Alzheimer's cases where victims, in essence, disappear before their families' eyes. When the discussions of cloning arise, we are often reminded that cloning, after all, cannot replicate a, say, Hitler because we are the composite of our memories, recollections and experience. We are our memory. When that disk is re-formatted and data are erased, our minds (or that section) are tabula rasa.

As is the case with any scientific breakthrough, there are attendant ethical issues that need to be addressed. And one of the issues is that forgetting is not necessarily an "oops." While we strive for eidetic memory and that steel-trap noggin, let's not forget that the systematic purging and erasure of the unnecessary make room for the novel: the memory 2.0 version, if you will. In fact, it's hard to miss this most apt analogy and metaphor to the computer. Deleting old files and disk cleanup certainly make sense. As do updating data and making sure you have the latest version. That's not forgetting; that's improving.

But the debilitatingly experiential, especially that which we've survived and overcome, often makes us better, wiser and who we are. What is learning, after all, but a series of mistakes that we remember not to repeat?

Friedrich Nietzsche, in the only quote of his most "remember," reminds us: That which does not kill us makes us stronger. But not if you forget what didn't kill you.