As debates about possibilities of memory modification expand, it’s useful to think about how entire societies could experience the effects of many individuals having voluntarily edited their memories. So far, most writers expressing ethical concerns over memory modification focus on the rights and responsibilities of individuals who elect to alter their memories, the central question being whether they may elect to forget or remember their own experiences. A few articles and blogs mention that there might be potential consequences of memory modification for public life and for historical knowledge but the problem has not received sufficient attention, and what those consequences could be hasn’t been discussed. Today I hope to broaden the conversation a little.
In this post, I define the scope of the problem and possible effects of blunted, emotionally altered memories on societies. In future posts, I will discuss induced forgetting and make a case for what should be considered legally acceptable and unacceptable memory modification based on social and legal consequences of mass adoption of memory-altering practices. I’m not touching the subject of memory enhancement and improvement, just forgetting and alteration.
By memory modification, I mean (1) drugs inducing amnesia of events that occurred in the immediate or recent past, which would administered near to the events themselves and likely work by interruption of memory formation/consolidation; (2) substances that blunt or diminish emotional impact of memories and create psychological distance from otherwise strong personal experiences; (3) drugs or neurological procedures that could alter existing memories, such as by intereference with retrieval or reconsolidation or changes in association. We could certainly debate the feasibility or practicality of these methods, but for the purpose of my argument here we will assume that it is possible to achieve some of these effects in normal patients. If memory alteration becomes a widespread medical practice, will it change what historians refer to as social or collective memory? Less sweeping of an issue when people choose to forget specific aspects of their personal lives, it raises huge ethical and practical documentary concerns when individuals who have “important” – that is, historically or legally necessary memories – choose to alter or forget them. I’ll address two possible legal concerns in a later post, but here the historical and social impact is the issue.
Given the many ways memory is already forgotten and altered in the brain, in texts, in social institutions, and other places where it exists, we can rightfully ask whether newer drug-induced memory alteration is fundamentally different from these other factors that affect and erase memory. After all, societies assemble their collective historical memories from many flawed sources, and only since the nineteenth century (for the most part) has the West agreed on what objective historical facts should look like. Popular, cultural history, like individual memory, is far more labile and often at odds with academic and legal records of fact. Social and historical memories comprise more than the sum of their individual components. They’re stored in texts, digital archives, servers, monuments, and archaeological sites among other loci. Writing itself has modified individual human memories and reshaped societal knowledge of the past, as we now know from both cognitive psychology and literacy studies. Individuals reshape their memories of events not just when they retrieve memories or confuse their own experiences, but when they read texts, public records, engage In civic rituals, watch films, news footage, sometimes confusing the memories of other people with their own. Frequent retrieval of individual memories alters them over time, as recent reconsolidation research demonstrates. So the past is already constructed from “modified” memory sources.
Part of the process by which historical information is objectively verified is through eyewitness accounts and interviews. Personal memories in any society might be checked against the oral accounts of others and in most against written record. So if we speak of a historical record or a factual history, we refer to many different sources of varying levels of reliability and durability.
For the scale of “major” events it is usually possible, certainly in recent history, to use the testimonies of people who lived through them as primary sources. So this concern arises: what if many – or most - people who witness a traumatic episode should choose to forget or modify their memories of it? If groups of people who are, say, victims of a terrorist attack or suffer through a gruesome mass accident decide they want to forget the trauma of the experience, does this impact society generally? Do public records and other documentation serve the purpose of preserving the past for legal, educational, and cultural purposes well enough? For this purpose we must distinguish between the effects of emotional blunting or treating the feelings and responses that memories evoke, and altering or eliminating the memories themselves. Both of these interventions have different possible outcomes on the ways societies "know" and construct their pasts, and I think it best to look at the more limited modification of emotions before turning to the contents of memories themselves. Blunting the emotional impact of such memories is unlikely to effect widespread social changes in much of anything. I can’t think of a situation where collective or historical memory is skewed because the eyewitness to the event lack strong emotional ties to their memories. Removing powerful feelings of fear, grief, or shame, could alter an individual response to traumatic events (a topic that’s been covered well by some neuroethicists out there already). Removing emotional valences shouldn’t matter that much for the purposes, of say, interviewing veterans of a war about their experiences in battle. In terms of society as a whole, it’s unclear what diminished emotional impact of memory would change.
One ethical concern could be the loss of an unpleasant memory’s value for "learning from experience"if the powerful affects accompanying memories, of say, shared struggles were erased. At the individual mind’s frame of reference, the fallibility of perception, recollection, coping mechanisms, drug use and psychological biases will likely skew the memory of anything personally traumatic already. And, for society at large, especially in the developed world, collective memory for serious events is shaped by media and social interaction. Most people experience major catastrophes from some distance, moderated by media, and thus think of them will far less immediate emotional response than a first-person victim or eyewitness might have. Historical events – even those which define generational or national identities – are taught and understood through a filter of time and relative objectivity which dampens emotional response. We live at an emotional distance from almost all of the historical events that matter to us and on which we base political and ethical decisions.
An objection could be raised that a sense of justice or fairness hinges on some level of emotional response to memories, and that assigning blame or praise for past events is never devoid of feeling. Most events – even and sometimes especially those most critical to social and political life – are removed enough from living memory as to be functionally blunted for most citizens. And many of the conflicts in the world today, including virtually all civil wars, aren’t helped by the strong emotional and personal responses that memories of past wrongs evoke. So one might even conclude that less personally meaningful, less emotionally powerful recollection could improve objectivity and fairness. I'm interested in hearing what readers think of this point.
Modifying the content of memories is another issue entirely, since it's entwined closely with the well-studied problems of autobiographical memory and eyewitness testimony. I'll save that discussion for next time.