Wiping the Slate Clean

They say that we only realize how strong our memory is when we deliberately try to forget something. Truer words have never been spoken. When we’re happy, we try to cling to that moment for as long as possible, but it passes and after sometime all that is left of it is a memory, a vague and dubious recollection of that event. However, an unpleasant or especially a traumatic memory is hard to shrug off. It becomes a part of who we are and alter the way we look at life.


Recent research suggests that a drug propranolol, taken shortly after a traumatic event or during the recollection of the same may erase the memory of that event from the brain. Propranolol is a beta-blocker i.e. it blocks the action of epinephrine on both β1- and β2-adrenergic receptors (which may block the formation of frightening memories in the amygdala). The man behind this discovery is James McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine.


The logic behind it is that memory is like putty, it slowly congeals into our brain and it is possible to make it stronger or weaker while it is setting. The stress hormone, adrenaline is what makes the memory strong and propranolol blocks adrenaline. In the same way, every time a memory is retrieved, it has to be restored. Hence, if something can prevent the memory from being restored, which is what propranolol does, the memory loses its intensity.


Even though this pill, if at all it is introduced in the market, is a blessing for patients suffering from PTSD*, there are tangential ethical issues that can’t be ignored. Especially if this drug is taken by people who do not suffer from PTSD and take it just to wipe out a nasty memory traumatic memories, which is significant to them but might not be essentially traumatic in the broader scheme of things. What is man but a mishmash of different memories? Wouldn’t taking away a memory from him, a crucial one at that, would be like taking away a part of him? Besides, propranolol is already widely used by people with stage fright issues, as it reduces symptoms and anxiety. It does not obliterate memories; it just reduces the vividness of the experience.


A memory, irrespective or how pleasant or unpleasant it is, teaches us a lesson which helps us tackle the issue, if it makes another appearance in our life. Altering the memory would not only deprive us of the lesson, it would leave us feeling confused or unwholesome because we would have no idea whatsoever about why we’re feeling, or not feeling a certain way in a certain situation. Moreover, since we would always we be aware of the fact that a particular incident had occurred but we cannot feel anything regarding it creep us out!


The dynamic field of science and technology never fails to mesmerize. Every single day, there’s a new discovery or invention which has two sides to it. But the problems of the mind should be dealt with, without meddling with the mind too much, or the repercussions might be beyond the comprehension or control of even science. And considering how the lines between science and nature have blurred in the recent times, the damage might be irrevocable and invincible.


*Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the developments of symptoms in response to events of such severity that most people would be stressed by them. PTSD involves an extreme experience such as war, a physical assault or a natural disaster.


Kashika Saxena

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blythe_d/1451273161/]