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.
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.
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.
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.
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