PKMzeta - A Memory Wipe Pill Has Been Created!
By Erin Froehlich
From the Id and Ego Blog Series
Hello and welcome back to Id and Ego – the psychology blog for psychology nerds.
This week: memory.
An incredible break through discovery has been made. By temporarily preventing protein synthesis in the brain, doctors can erase a memory - any single memory – without surgery, without months of counseling or cognitive training. We need only take a pill.
The seed of this pill was sewn 20 years ago when a budding new neuroscientist, Karim Nader realized that while process for creating memories had been identified about 20 years before, the process of retrieving a memory hadn’t been. In order to discover it for himself, he said he figured he needed to start with the simplest question possible. He knew creating a memory required the creation of new proteins, so the question became would the retrieval of that memory require new proteins as well? He guessed it would, but his boss, Joseph LeDoux, himself a well-known neuroscientist - quite literally - bet against his hypothesis!
Said LeDoux to reporters “I told Karim he was wasting his time… I didn’t think the experiment would work.” He cut him a deal – he told him that if he was actually right, he’d buy him a bottle of tequila, if he was wrong, he’d be treating everyone to a drink. “I honestly assumed I’d be spending a bunch of money on alcohol… Everyone else knew a lot more about the neuroscience of memory. And they all told me it would never work.” admitted Nader.
But Nader got his bottle after all.
The PKMzeta Experiment
In his experiment involving a dozen rats, trained to fear a certain distinctive sound over the course of a month, freezing with fear every time they heard it, he played the sound once more and immediately injected the brains with a chemical that prevented protein from being created. When he played the sound again the rats had no reaction at all. Even more importantly though? The effect continued long after the injection had left their system.
“I couldn’t believe what happened, the fear memory was gone. The rats had forgotten everything.” said Nader.
In his experiment, not only did Nader discover the secret to targeted pharmaceutical memory loss, he found the answer to how memories are remembered. Memories didn’t have some specific spot they were resting in our brains, preserved in pristine condition, a neuro-connection away whenever we may need it. Memories actually had to be recreated. Le Doux explained that contrary to previous beliefs “The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past. Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future."
Societal Implications of PKMzeta - The Memory Wipe Pill
Obviously this has some pretty big implications for those with PTSD or having experienced a traumatic event, yet there are other, less obvious conditions which may benefit from the memory wiping pill as well. OCD, drug addiction and even chronic pain are afflictions caused in large part, because of memory. In the case of OCD, it’s a fear or anxiety being remembered, with drug addiction it’s the high and with chronic pain it’s the memory of the trauma that originally inflicted it. The pill could potentially be the answer to all these problems! And yet… it’s not difficult to imagine the consequences the power might bring.
With memories a matter of choice, I wonder - how could this change us? What would a world of people without unpleasant memories be like? Would we be happier, more kind and confident people without any recollection of rejection, betrayal or loss? Would we be weaker, more shallow and selfish people without the memory of our struggles, our failures or the hurt we’ve inflicted? Believe me - I’ve been through more than my fair share of difficult life experiences. Would I dose them away if I could? What sort of me would that dosing leave behind?
And then there’s the possibility that the pill may fall into the wrong hands. That one person may erase the memories of another against their will.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
This pill honestly seems more believable in a science-fiction movie than in the pharmacy at my local grocery store. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind immediately comes to mind which, for those of you that haven’t seen it (shame!), revolves around the idea that there is a machine which can completely erase the memory of a person.
It follows two natural candidates for such a machine - a couple that have broken up. The girlfriend (Kate Winslet) decides to erase all memories of the boyfriend (Jim Carrey). The boyfriend finds out and decides, “Heck! Erase me?! I’ll erase her!” and signs up for the procedure himself. HOWEVER, as you might imagine, there are complications along the way. In the process, reliving all they shared, he decides he doesn’t actually want to go through with it. He’d rather feel the pain than lose the memories they shared. So, he tries to fight his mind against the machine in the dream like state it’s induced. But ultimately, he can’t. The movie ends - and actually begins – with the couple post-memory wiping, having re-met and reformed an attraction, and having discovering their history. They debate; knowing that their relationship ended badly before, if did begin anew, wouldn’t it just fall apart again? They decide they’ll give it a chance again regardless. End credits. Cue music. (Trust me. It’s a lot better and more interesting than this very abbreviated synopsis makes it seem. Definitely worth an hour and half of your time.)
Of course, the pill isn’t exactly like total mind-wipe of a person portrayed in the film. It’s extremely precise, eliminating just a single memory at a time. Still, it conjures some poignant moral and philosophical questions. Is the ability to wipe a memory from our mind really for the greater good? As Jonah Lehrer who wrote about the pill extensively for Wired Magazine points out, “PKMzeta inhibitors can zap rodent memories, but we can’t ask the rats how they feel afterward. Maybe they feel terrible. Maybe they miss their fear. Maybe they miss their morphine. Or maybe all they know is that they miss something. They just can’t remember what.”
What do YOU think about the memory wipe pill?
Are there memories you would erase?
Do you feel the potentials benefits of the pill outweigh its potential for abuse?