Friday, June 27, 2014

Speak, Memory

Memory is under attack. A recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter (“Partial Recall,” 5/19/14) discusses findings by neuroscientists which might enable memory to be edited. Though most of the work has been done at Mount Sinai and N.Y.U. with rats, it seems to offer the prospect of a more benign version of The Manchurian Candidate. The idea would be that survivors of atrocity who suffer from PTSD along with addicts whose addictions are often tied to people, places and things could be freed of symptoms by treating the mind the way the Avid deals with digitalized images. But let’s say that this can be achieved is it advisable? Do the means (which run the gamut from analgesia to eradication) justify the end of producing a so called happy and untroubled individual? Can bad memories be looked at like cancers which must be removed before they become systemic? The New Yorker piece has profound resonances because while it reports research, it’s also telling the story of Daniela Schiller, a scientist whose work is in part driven by her own history, which is that of being the child of a Holocaust survivor. The memory reconsolidation issue also is reminiscent of the lobotomy, a once prevalent approach to mental illness that is now rarely employed. If memory might be painful, can we say that removing it is a little like locking someone in a cell and throwing away the key? On a collective scale would we want to remove painful memories of mass murder, plane crashes, serial murderers under the theory that these instances create nightmares in children and an atmosphere of fear in society? Even if we could would we want to eliminate the bad and ugly to spare the good? And don’t the famous words of Santayana come into play, in considering both ontogenic and phylogenic consequences of using the neuroscientific techniques involving reconsolidation  amputate gangrenous recollection? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”  Speak, Memory was the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir. Imagine the Proustian madeleine in a world of artificially induced memory reconsolidation. It would be just a madeleine.

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