Amnesia isn’t a deliberate choice - often it’s the saddening result of severe brain trauma; all of those experiences that we’ve gained that make us who we are are lost in the space of a heartbeat. Yet it’s unsurprising to see our own increased infatuation with wanting to manipulate and even deliberately erase them. It’s a topic that has been the subject of countless narratives, whether that’s been Morpheus’s offering of pills in The Matrix or Rachel’s implanted memories in Blade Runner - artificial memories and deliberate amnesia seem to fascinate us as a culture. What might have been brushed off as pure science fiction, now has the potential to become reality, so it’s with this article that I have one question to ask: if you had the chance to erase a memory, would you?
Unlike Deckard (Harrison Ford's brooding assassin in Ridley Scott's universe), we don’t live in a dystopian Los Angeles and it’s less straightforward than a trip to the cinema makes out, but it is a process that has been tested in the past on litters of rats. A particular experiment, performed by neuroscientist Todd Sacktor, concluded that if you inject a protein inhibitor that goes by the name of ZIP (Zeta Inhibitory Peptide) into the motor region of the cortex, you’re able to tamper with the chemical process that would normally imprint the memory and store it, switching off the molecule PKMzeta. It’s an impressive feat, one that isn’t fit for our complex human minds just yet as not only does ZIP not have the ability to target isolated memories, but it would also cause most of our brain functions to fail. However, if you take the core idea, the concept of a wonder drug that’ll unlock the door to erasing individual memories, I have to reiterate my original question - would you take it?
Back in July 2011 BBC Radio 4 enrolled Dr Mark Lythgoe to investigate that very question and over the course of the 30-minute show we were introduced in more detail to those experiments that, over the past few years, have caused a seismic shift in neuroscience. Lythgoe tackles the second half of the programme by asking POPPA founder Bill Genêt, whether the frontline police workers who witnessed the 9/11 tragedy would take, if they could, a drug to remove those tragic first hand encounters. Perhaps surprisingly, despite suffering obvious aftereffects, almost 80% of police men and women who Bill pitched the idea to turned down the hypothetical offer, stating it’s a traumatic life experience that’s provided a crucial, but eventually positive backbone for their development as people.
It is large-scale catastrophic events like 9/11 that simultaneously imprint awful images into our brains worldwide, but personally I think it’s those close-to-home experiences that we face, which makes Lesions in the Landscape, our current exhibition exploring the effects of amnesia on both people and places, a wonderfully haunting and bittersweet one. Claire, a woman suffering severe amnesia as the result of viral encephalitis, features in the exhibition and what’s interesting is this idea that while we question whether we’d remove particular memories, she’s already living this eternal sunshine that perhaps neuroscientists are striving for. In reality, the complications of removing memories is potentially counterproductive; after all it’s our experiences, the people we meet, the things we do and the consequences of our actions that allows us to develop.
We’ve all got those type of memories that at the time we wish we could wipe from our minds as quickly and effortlessly as we delete files on our computers, but like those 80% that Bill Genêt asked, sometimes it’s those negative experiences that allow us to succeed. A particular period from my own memory bank takes me back nine years to when I was fourteen and learned how devastating the word ‘malignant’ could be. Without dwelling on the negative diagnosis of a close family friend and its aftermath, I’d like to offer a personal explanation as to why I’d say no to the idea of removing that memory. No matter how dark those days got, I can’t help but look back with a heavy sense of not only sadness, but also positivity. While I still suffer side effects of repressed grief - bedtime anxiety and an incurable fear of headaches - I’ve been able to develop an admiration for neurology, but most importantly, one of my most unbreakable friendships was forged in the fire of that very devastation.
Of course, positivity doesn’t always come from those dark periods in our lives, in fact quite the opposite. The answer to the question of this article is entirely dependent on you personally, and if your answer to the question is yes, you would remove a memory, then it’s important to contemplate how this science of erasing memories could one day be an effective treatment for post traumatic stress.
With that said, would you remove a particular memory? Tweet @FACT_Liverpool using #FACTMemory to share your thoughts.
Our current exhibition Lesions in the Landscape is open until 22 November, Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 6pm and entrance is free.
The related film programme starts this Saturday with Last Year at Marienbad, and continues with Blade Runner on 25 October. Tickets on sale now.