Before shifting topics rather far from here for my next post, today I’m considering some additional “big” social questions raised by memory modification. I’m considering what happens if most people in the West have access to drugs/technologies which permit them to selectively forget, and if they employ these frequently. Will societal trust in memory change? Will ethical conceptions of reliability and trustworthiness be shaken when/if memory modification becomes commonplace? Will be people who undergo the procedure(s) be viewed as impaired or unreliable sources as a result? For the purposes of keeping this post brief, I’m restricting my consideration of “society” to mean largely Anglophone societies and legal systems.
Here, modification means specifically erasing the contents of memories, drug or treatment induced forgetting. For mostly neurophysiological reasons, I doubt that finding and removing specific, established long term memories will be a feasible technology, because risk of erasure of the contents of many connected memories is high, and such procedures could likely have negative effects on cognitive function and psychological health (if existing lesion data offers any guide). So the kind of content erasure I’m imagining here – based on the recent rat studies and human PTSD therapies - is akin to (1 the induction of amnesia covering a brief period, probably by interruption of memory consolidation in the near term after an event that someone chooses to forget; and (2 altering the content of an older memory as it’s being recalled, perhaps by modifying the retrieval process.
Even this kind of intervention could take years to be considered “safe,” and a scientifically challenged public might worry about its overall effects. Distrust of science and technology might play a role here. But distrust of the technology is not the same thing as a shaken trust in the reliability of memories in people who’ve elected to use it. It could create a stigma. Why would memory modification shake trust in memory in any socially or culturally significant way? Recent scientific evidence about the malleability of memory has had little effect on popular culture, folk psychology, or public opinion. It’s taken three decades for American legal culture to adequately acknowledge the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and of recollection in general. But nonetheless, eventually societies may come to terms with the challenges to long-held notions about the permanence of memory. Still, the memory myths and commonplaces recently exploded by cognitive psychology reveal the frailty of natural memory. Even with its foibles, popular psychology and Western folk psychology traditions accord the natural state of mind a kind of primacy, and the weaknesses of memory fall within that framework as a natural limitation. Conversely, altered states of mind induced, by, for example, pharmacologic intervention are viewed within this popular framework as unnatural, and often as innately suspicious or dangerous changes. It’s conceivable that memory modification technologies themselves will be widely suspect (if also widely used) and this suspicion will also fall on the reliability of people who undergo such modifications.
How many memory modifications could a person undergo before average members of society consider them unreliable? This question is different from the scientific one it resembles. If such modifications turn out to be reasonable safe, there could be some cases of serious psychological and neurological side-effects, causing impairments that would make the public wary of the procedure altogether. More likely, the pulic concern will focus on individuals who have repeatedly tried to forget some of their experiences. We might also consider the possibility of habitual memory modification for people involved in high volume traumatic situations (first responders or career military, for instance)? One needn’t be a virtue ethicist to see that someone who routinely modifies their memories or who erases a substantial amount of these might be viewed skepticism in parts of society. This would raise concerns about such a person’s fitness not just in the legal context, but also for journalism and historical research interviews. We don’t yet have a standard for this kind of reliability, since legal standards of “sound mind” operate on a subjective scale, and plenty of sound-minded individuals have weak or very unreliable memories. Nonetheless, one should consider potential challenges to the testimony of persosn who’ve undergone memory modification as a possible consequence. Again, this is mostly an issue of social perception of someone’s reliability. We don’t yet know if the physiological changes accompanied by memory modification are really that different in magnitude from the changes caused by suggestibility, various perceptual errors, cognitive biases, traumatic and other amnesia, and subtle commonplace changes to memory caused by retrieval and reconsolidation. We don't yet know if there serious adverse clinical/behavioral consequences to memory modification. It's important to consider that any widely publicized side effects or even a few bad events could prejudice the pulblic against the technology. Already to many people outside of the scientific debates, memory modification may seem far more serious because it is a new technology and purports to effect change in one of the core components of psychological identity.
So when the public – and many policymakers – first come to terms with memory modification, it may be viewed as something more dangerous and unnatural than our current knowledge about human memory systems calls for.