SE Practitioners React to the Notion of a “Forgetting Pill”

by: FHE Admin

An article in the March, 2012 issue of Wired magazine suggests “a new drug can target your worst memories— and erase them forever.” With its discussions of PTSD and other forms of trauma, the article seemed ripe for response from several of our Somatic Experiencing® Practitioners (SEPs). Read their four responses here and please share your own comments below.

Thoughts on “The Forgetting Pill” from Neal Winblad, MFT, SEP:

Let’s look at some examples of how and where this new breakthrough may go wrong. Suppose my “best friend” wants to steal my wife away from me. With the memory drugs it may be simple. He takes me out drinking one night and slips the memory eraser drug into my drink. Then he gets me to reminisce about all the good times my wife and I have had together. The following evening he invites me out to drink again and this time he slips the memory enhancement drug into my drink. Now he gets me talking about all of the rotten times we’ve had together. The next morning I am painfully aware of how rotten our relationship has been and can’t think of any good times together. He gets a confederate to do the same thing with my wife. Six months later those two are married. And every time they have a fight he just slips the memory eraser in her drink, maybe adds a little sodium amytal, and makes her forget. Stepford wives no longer require the complex surgery!

As another example, imagine that in the future, in order to acquire gainful employment, you have to sign an agreement that when you leave the company you’ll have a memory erasure procedure so you won’t be taking any trade secrets forth into your next job working for their competitor. Or, can you imagine if Richard Nixon had the memory erase technology and the National Defense Authorization Act? He could have had his secret police round up anyone who knew anything about Watergate and conveniently erased that knowledge. Let’s say a man molests a little girl. He is then plagued with horrible guilt that causes him to be suicidal. He goes to his psychiatrist to treat his suicidal ideation and the psychiatrist, wanting to help relieve his suffering, prescribes memory erasure. Now, this man is deprived of the opportunity, brought on by his guilt, to work through the guilt by making amends to the person he has perpetrated against. The little girl, on the other hand, has repressed the memory so she has no clue what is troubling her, or that there is a memory erasure available to her. So she suffers; he moves on with his life. While this new technology sounds intriguing, the ethical dilemmas are quite beyond medical science’s current level of social development.

Respectfully submitted,

– Neal

From Serge Prengel, SEP:

Of course, it would be great if we could “surgically” remove a very specific bad memory. And it would also be great if we could transplant a palm tree to the Arctic, or a ski slope to Las Vegas. But a palm tree or a ski slope don’t exist in isolation, they’re rooted in an ecosystem. A memory is also deeply rooted in an ecosystem. For one thing, a memory is not a neutral snapshot of what happened, independent of how the experience affected us. A memory is the trace that an experience leaves in us: It includes both factual information about the event, and our reaction to it. This is coded in the sequence of neural connections that correspond to our reaction (i.e., the somatic markers of the emotions and physical motions). Because the memory is not just a neutral snapshot, but also a “script” of how we react, it has the capacity to change when we look at it again, under new circumstances. In fact, this is what makes SE possible: We change our perspective. We do not go back to facing the traumatic experience from a narrow, isolated perspective where we are overwhelmed; we create a resourcing environment, a broader container, within which the experience can be “digested”. In other words: We can’t remove the memory and do as if the experience never happened, but “digesting” it means that we are nourished by it, and stronger for it.

– Serge

From Joshua Sylvae, SEP:

Full of Holes: A Response to Jonah Lehrer’s ‘The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever’

As the author concedes, our current paradigm for understanding memory is … well, “full of holes.” Reflecting a perennially recurring theme in the scientific project, these inquiries into the function of memory seek to devise solutions to a problem that is not fully understood. If, as the Lehrer states, “The body remembers,” then a reconsideration of cortical systems as the ultimate arbiters of memory is necessary. Options for survivors of trauma are fortunately more numerous than the article suggests, and include enormously effective, psychobiological treatments such as Somatic Experiencing. In the SE® approach, the renegotiation of trauma becomes possible, in part through the integration of memory traces that were previously unassimilable. If these un-integrated elements of experience become permanently unavailable to consciousness, renegotiation and thus the return to efficient and adaptive nervous system functioning would be made much more difficult. Trauma is much too complex to be characterized as simply “a disease of memory,” and it is likely that traumatic symptomatology could persist even in the absence of cortically mediated explicit memory traces, albeit now impossible to treat.

– Joshua

From Katie Brader, SEP, LMFTA, LPC Intern (Supervised by Marshall Divita, LPC-S, LMFT-S):

No two persons process the exact same information in the same way, meaning memories and their manifestations cannot be accurately predicted within an individual. As someone in a healing profession I would like nothing more than to say that our individuality should be celebrated and prized above all else. However, the reality of the world we live in and the need to survive inordinate stressors compel me to examine the possibility of erasing specific memories using a different lens— the lens of practicality.

As a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner I know how this model changes people’s lives and I continually marvel at the grace with which people reclaim parts of themselves through this work. I also know that in our country, therapy, in all its forms, is a luxury. The majority of people who could benefit from services cannot financially afford it, and/or do not have appropriate services accessible in their geographic region (or in their native language), or it is not covered by their health insurance plan. This leaves the conundrum of how do we reconcile knowing there are viable therapies to help people better manage horrendous circumstances stemming from addiction, PTSD, chronic pain, abuse, violence, or psychological challenges while knowing that most people cannot access these therapies? Because viable therapies exist, does that mean we dismiss or ignore solutions less altruistic in nature?

The issue of erasing specific memories seems to mirror challenges inherent to those of cloning and stem cell research. These are messy ideas full of potential, for better or worse. The people who have spent most of their lives not truly living but rather merely surviving circumstances connected to an event or experience— and therefore to a memory— should have the loudest voice regarding this topic. After all, it is the story in each of their minds that is dictating their possibilities.

– Katie

What do you think about the idea of a “forgetting pill”? Please log in (it’s free and easy) and comment below.


The Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute

About the contributors: Neal Winblad, MFT, SEP is based in Pleasanton, California and works to help adults, teens, couples, and families achieve happier and healthier lives. Serge Prengel, an SEP in New York City, hosts a podcast of 30-minute conversations with different SE practitioners. Joshua Sylvae is an SEP with Sylvae Healing Arts. Katie Brader is an SEP, LMFTA, and LPC Intern with the Integrative Psychotherapy Center (IPC) of Austin.

Photo by Dwight Eschliman, as published in Wired, March 2012

Comments (14)
  1. It touches me that such an ideá of a forgetting pill comes forth. `Cause it makes me think and it is showing a sign that attention and awareness is wanted on this topic. Life is calling for our creativity here.
    The intention of creating such a pill is unknown to me, but can be a caring one. Yet, deeper down it feels like this is not really respecting and trusting humanity to have the capacity, heart, creativity and strength to deal with intense experiences. And I don`t like where that takes us. How about using the energy to create and distribute such a pill into how to support and make trauma healing more accessible and known to the general public and health care professionals. Let´s keep on doing that and share the gifts inherent in such experiences and hope that more people will stand their ground and believe in healing through the way of nature and our own inner intelligence. I do.

  2. I am taken back to my early days as a labor and delivery nurse. Some physicians assured mothers they would feel no discomfort if they took “twilight sleep”, a combination of demerol and scopolamine.
    Scopolamine acts by interfering with the transmission of nerve impulses by acetycholine in the parasympathetic nervous system.

    Once their baby’s were born mothers on ‘twilight sleep” raved about their easy labors. Not so. They had very challenging labors but the scopolamine cancelled out their memories. They did not remember their actual experience.
    Fortunately, “twilight sleep” is no longer used in obstetrics. Too dangerous!

  3. Lubby

    Being an SE practitioner it seems very simple to me. The mind may forget, but the body…probably not. I am afraid to see this create even deeper trauma for someone whose body keeps reacting the same way and not being able to access the event so that things can complete. In a way creating a type of preverbal trauma where the sensation is still extremely active with no way to figure it out. If it would work with both the body and the mind, then maybe but unless that is the guaranteed outcome then I think it would be a whole new can of worms.

  4. The old definition of memory was “conscious recall”. The new definition of memory is “the way a system is changed by experience”.
    I assume the pill only erases the conscious recall part, and does not clear hypervigilance or make us able to sleep and trust people again. If you clear the memory but not the reactivity, people will just be more confused and ashamed of responses whose origins they do not understand. I am against anything that contributes to more shame, and leaves people feeling even more alienated and betrayed by their bodies. We have enough resistance to embodiment as it is, thank you very much.

  5. I have a completely different take on it than the other contributions thus far.

    This is honestly one of the most exciting pieces of research an SE therapist could hope for. Somatic Experiencing® is the process of doing exactly what this drug essentially does. Every word of this article is complete validation for everything we do in an SE session and why what we do works. Essentially, we too are “erasing” memories. I will explain what I mean.

    The article asserts that “Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, . . they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed. ” It goes on to say “The larger lesson is that because our memories are formed by the act of remembering them, controlling the conditions under which they are recalled can actually change their content.” Each time we have a client access a memory, track the sensations and complete and incomplete defensive response. . . we have essentially changed (“erased”) an aspect of their memory and replaced it with a new memory. It has been newly consolidated with the completed defensive response, the competent protector, our compassionate presence or other such modification that actually “erases” the memory as it once existed and replaces it with a newly modified version of “reality”. In the future when they think of the original incident, the memory, now has the new association of empowered action, support, etc that was missing. A good SE therapist is harnessing the same principles this drug works on. In our sessions “a network of cells is constantly being reconsolidated, rewritten, remade.” It is the beauty of SE® and why our work is so powerful at changing peoples perspective on their trauma.

    As Karim Nader states “Anything can change memory. This technology isn’t new. It’s just a better version of an existing biological process.” The article points out that talk therapy is rather inefficient at changing memories and can often result in the driving the actual traumatic memory deeper into the persons associations. SE® therapists are very conscious of not having the client re-live or re-expience the memory as it actually happened, even if it is solely by introducing time and slowing the process way down. Accessing an aspect of memory and then slowing down the process in an SE® session “erases” the memory as it happened and reconsolidates it into a new memory which isn’t how the actual original memory was formed.

    The article also addresses the process of “uncoupling” aspects of the memory from the actual event. “By coupling these amnesia cocktails to the memory reconsolidation process, it’s possible to get even more specific . . . . By injecting a protein synthesis inhibitor before the rats were exposed to only one of the sounds—and therefore before they underwent memory reconsolidation—the rats could be “trained” to forget the fear associated with that particular tone. “Only the first link was gone,” This is essentially what we are working with when we work with one element of SIBAM. We might work with just the sound of the car accident, bringing the memory up into consciousness and pairing it with a more pleasant sound. Eventually as we do this the sound of breaking glass gets uncoupled from the memory of the car accident. The rest of the elements of the trauma from the car accident are still in place, but with one aspect of the memory “erased”. The sound is no part of the memory and cannot therefore trigger it. Indeed, now the sound of breaking glass may trigger fond memories of birds chirping in the spring. The “pill” is essentially doing the same thing, with the exception that in SE® we can be much more creative, nuanced and refined and the memory can be reshaped or erased and reformed in limitless possibilities unique to the individuals own biological wisdom. The client learns a capacity that is their evolutionary heritage and birthright and need not be dependent on Big Pharma.

    I encourage every SE® therapist to re-read this article with different lens and perspective. As you read the article, look for how it is informing and giving validation for everything that you do as an SE® therapist.

    1. Lubby Martinson, SEP


      Were you able to go to Peter’s class on memory and emotion? This article seems to be focused in the same direction. I am hoping that he offers it again at a time that I can attend. Thank you for suggesting I re-read the article. I read the first time with a closed mind.

      I have a client that I have been working with for years who had “memories” of things that her mind created to explain preverbal abuse. When her sister told her what actually happened, she finally had a real story to go with the sensations and it was actually making sense to her. I saw how emotion linked to sensation created a need for these false memories. Her mind needed an explanation in order to accept or “understand” the sensations that she was experiencing.

      I will maintain an open mind on this issue to see what comes forth in the future. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

  6. Erasing memories is part of what I do as an SE practitioner. But I hardly think a pill could be as situation specific or as memory specific as the work I do. It occurs to me–why has no one looked up the specific source? What is the nature of this research? Is the study well designed? What type of memories are being erased? How is this done even given a pill is being used? It seems to me that we are having all kinds of reactions to an idea, but not to the actual research that purportedly substantiates this idea. Let’s investigate!

  7. I have to agree with the comment Serge Prengel made (above) about a memory being part of an ecosystem. A memory, neurobiologically, is not a single thing that can be excised. It is connected to countless neural pathways that affect our thoughts, muscles, organs, hormones, emotions, relationships, cognition, and other memories. The idea of something akin to surgically removing a memory strikes me as dehumanizing. We are not collections of little parts and widgets; we are complex organisms in which each part is connected to another. I have to wonder whether this is another idea designed to make managed care cheaper and more “efficient”. If only it were that easy.

  8. Joseph Ledoux, one of the formost experts in neuroscience, is cited throughout this article. It was his understudy who did the research that led to this discovery of being able to “erase” memories. Peter references Joseph Ledoux in his new book and Joseph LeDoux’s book The Synaptic Self: How our Brains Become Who We Are is recommended reading for the SE therapist. I now am of the opinion that it should be required reading. Again, as I said before, what they are manipulating in these studies is exactly the same process that we are tapping into when we resolve a trauma using SE®. We have just collectively denounce the scientific foundation for much of what we do.

  9. I was most definitely using the word “erase” by qualifying it and using a unique definition. My point is that I don’t think that what the authors of the article are actually doing is really “erasing” anything either and probably should have used a better word for what is actually transpiring in their experiments.

  10. This is a link to and original work by Karim Nadir. In this he doesn’t not use the terminology of “erase” at all but more scientifically accepted concepts related to memory formation and consolidation hypotheses. This article is much more informative than the more pop version of the article we reviewed.

  11. Another Pill
    Can anything be wiped
    from the timeless mirror
    and not lose
    the connection
    with life’s continuous
    breath promising
    fullness in any
    moment if there is no
    one and no experience
    And would it be this
    torment or that horror
    or the unbearable loss
    or the uncompleted
    good farewell that was chosen
    for exclusion?
    And would my soul be
    stronger and larger and
    more clearly a part of the
    one thing that excludes
    Or is resurrection ongoing
    and an instinct – touched
    only by opening to an
    undiluted yes?

    The question of a pill to erase memory is compelling and reaches into the depths of what it is to be human and what makes the soul grow. And when I think about my own traumas and wonder which of them I might benefit from exclusing I become unclear. There are several from which I see no obvious benefit. However, I’m not sure. How would I be different? Who would I have touched less or more?

    We do know refined support fosters recovery of our fuller humanity. Perhaps we should just continue to show the beautiful ways that can work.

    Jan Crawford

  12. Richard Green

    The experiences that cause us the most suffering can also be the most precious. The important thing in SE for me is that a person who has experienced trauma and recovered from it is deeper and wiser than if none if it had happened. Our job is to make sure our clients come through to the deeper/wiser bit.

    Recently I lost my mother. A painful experience but necessary, and after grieving I feel I learned some important things about life from it. I would not take a pill in order to forget that she died.

  13. Jeanette Oki

    This is interesting. Of course, if you can do SE, why take a drug? But, I wonder. If with this technique, you remove the charge (the amygdala responses; the trauma symptoms) that comes with the narrative, then what happens to that SIBAM and neurological pattern that were symptoms. When the “erasure” occurs, is it complete or does the neuro pattern remain dysfunctional but at a quieter level and the overt symptoms, the peaks, disappear. And then, when the cured person encounters heightened levels of stress that are related to current events, a similar traumatic pattern might assert itself, since the resiliency of the nervous system has not been improved. Maybe the overt hysteria, fear, pain doesn’t occur with that particular narrative trigger, but it seems there would remain a familiar chain of associations and somatic (autonomic and neuromuscular) patterns that would show up if the person encountered actual other hazardous events. A default reaction pattern without a named cause. Another, thing that is missed with the “forgetting pill”, is the person does not learn the self mastery; the communication between psyche and body. People are usually seeking relief, I know, but self mastery through embodiment could help evolve humanity in a way that pharma won’t.

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