In a thoughtful post on my recent comment in Nature, Neuroskeptic questions a claim I made. In responding to the view of some ethicists that we should find redeeming value in bad memories rather than dampening them, I wrote, "Some memories, such as those of rescue workers who clean up scenes of mass destruction, may have no redeeming value."
Neuroskeptic is (appropriately enough) skeptical. He writes: "A rescue worker, at least a professional one, has chosen to do that kind of work. The experiences that are part of that job are ones they decided to have - or at least that they knew were a realistic possibility - and that may be an expression of their identity."
Due to the incredibly tight word limits I had on the piece, the sentence Neuroskeptic addresses is much more compressed than I'd like it to be. So, I agree with Neuroskeptic that I didn't give the best example. But my reasoning is a bit different. Here's why:
First, as a preliminary matter, I didn't mean to imply that the memories of rescue workers never have redeeming value. I just meant that they may have no redeeming value. In response to a question from Annalee Newitz at io9, here's what I said:
I didn't mean that that the memories of rescue workers never have redeeming value. I meant that they may have no redeeming value. Suppose, for example, that a rescue worker is haunted by traumatic memories. He has already provided experts and family members with as much information as possible and now he would like to be rid of those memories. I don't think people should suffer for the sake of suffering.
Second, and more specific to the Neuroskeptic, I didn't necessarily have in mind professional rescue workers. In his testimony before the President's Council on Bioethics, memory expert Jim McGaugh gave a good example. After a 1978 plane crash in San Diego, baggage handlers and other airport employees were given the task of cleaning up the wreckage of the crash, even though they had no special expertise in doing so. Many experienced severe psychological problems for doing rescue work for which they weren't trained. I think there are lots of examples of rescue scenes where non-professionals get involved.
Third, even when the sentence is applied to professional rescue workers, though, I disagree with the Neuroskeptic that one's choice to be a rescue worker should make memory-dampening drugs inappropriate. After all, just as one can choose to be a rescue worker and make it part of one's identity, can't one change his mind? Can't someone decide that even though he thought he was cut out for this line of work, in fact, he failed to anticipate its psychological toll in some instance? Of course, a rescue worker who needs to be regularly medicated to perform his job may simply not be well-suited for the job. Whatever drugs are ultimately developed, they are not going to be perfect and will likely have various side effects. But the grounds for restricting such medications seem rooted in practical concerns (e.g., others are better suited to the work) rather than any deep problem about the identity of one's chosen profession. Police officers, for example, can anticipate coming across some grizzly scenes in the course of their careers, but I don't think the choice to become a police officer should reduce their opportunities for treating their mental and emotional problems when they arise.
Finally, I do think my example is far from the best one. If one needs to write a long blog post to explain it, it could have been better. So here's a better example. This recent L.A. Times article describes a NEJM study examining people who "wake up" from general anesthesia during surgery and subsequently have memories of the surgery. "As many as 70% of the 20,000 to 40,000 people in the U.S. who have unintended intraoperative awareness go on to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, the team noted in their paper. Considering the personal accounts appended to the study, it's not hard to see why." The people who have horrific memories of their own surgeries clearly provide a cleaner case for memory-dampening drugs. It's hard to see why they should be required to "redeem" their memories of being operated on.
My thanks to the Neuroskeptic and to Annalee Newitz for prompting closer attention to this sentence from the paper. Hat tips to Sasha Davenport for the pointer to the Neuroskeptic and to Art Caplan for the pointer to the L.A. Times and NEJM studies.