Perfect Memory? I Think I’d Say No, Thanks

Reprinted from Floyd Press column, The Road Less Traveled, August 6, 2009 / FFirst

Lately I’ve been thinking about memory–not because I have new concerns about forgetting to put on my pants or pick up the milk in town. As far as my own memory goes, nothing much has changed (or so I think) and I bumble along at about the same level of absentmindedness as is my usual.

What prompts me to ruminate about memory these days goes back to curiosity I’ve had about the subject since my single-year college detour as a psych major.

As psychology students, we could watch memories form by the behaviors they yielded in rodents. New habits were formed in rats taught to remember to seek out one rewarding part of a maze by color and to avoid another. But what changed in those brains? How was that memory stored? And what was forgetting that made it weaken over the next week, month or year like mine did for organic chemistry equations or the names of my next-door dorm neighbors?

The very existence of schools and universities, of teaching and learning is homage to the potential power of thinking’s historian: memory. Could there be any feature of human existence less well understood relative to its importance?

The ascent of civilization and culture, science and philosophy, have been carried along by the power of this thing–noun or verb?–that brains have or do. However it works, it connects perception–what we touch, see, hear–more or less reliably to times, places, ideas and their meanings. How absolutely essential and what a mystery! The subject both perplexed and challenged me then, and it still does today.

But beyond the physical mechanics of memory, as those riddles are brought to light, will soon thereafter come the complex ethical questions of how to use what we will have come to know. I wonder: If it can be done, does it follow that it should be done? If new knowledge or tools are available, are we compelled to use them?

This is worth considering now, because, in our scientific understanding of and control over essential process of life, we approach for memory (within one or a few human lifetimes) the threshold from merely reading code to altering it–a boundary already crossed for DNA. And if DNA is the blueprint for the chassis, memory is the program for operations.

Consider: we’ve modified almost every aspect of agriculture and many of human health by manipulating genes and chromosomes. What form will our biotechnological destiny take when we possess the same level of power over the molecular basis for memory and can pharmaceutically turn up or down the recall of facts and the emotional weight of memories to suit the needs and wishes of the individual–or the group?

We now know that short term and long term memory are different chemical-synaptic processes and that emotionally loaded and emotionally neutral memories are coded differently. Substances like propranolol and PMKzeta and ZIP (and others we’ll soon find) can make memories weaker or stronger. You can easily find the studies online.

So for the sake of discussion, let’s imagine a time when: we can make average memory abilities of a college student, scientist or leader “perfect.” We can selectively remove the emotional pain associated with memories of abuse or of tragic loss and shame while leaving emotionally-neutral memories intact.  Perhaps we can even create nano-implant memory modules for the brain to make it’s recipients perpetually resistant to depression or aggression like we selectively insert new genes in a field of corn to make it resistant to disease and tolerant to herbicides.

But maybe in the end, there’s a legitimate argument for selective memory, for forgetting and regret and against the possibility of perpetual bliss and total recall. If this whole paragraph is  set in bold type, nothing in it stands out. If I can’t weight more strongly the memories of certain events, times, places and faces that my inner story-teller finds of greater value to me as author of my own narrative, whose story is it? If we can create soldiers without emotional pain, isn’t that the death of conscience? If I am no longer repulsed by the guilt of a memory of another sorely wronged, am I more likely to repeat that impulse to injure?

The ability to intervene in the essential human faculty of memory will, like any other technology, be a two-edged sword. Like our genes, our memories make us unique, and both are fallible. Some day we may be able to taylor what and how we remember. If it can be done: when faced with the passageway into the matrix of memory, will we choose the blue pill or the red one?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Ahhh the old Matrix argument. I tend to agree with, or at least entertain the same questions you posed today. Sometimes it seems like life’s choices could be made so much easier if given the ability to just forget the past, and there are some that claim they do, and can move forward. Then again, what part of ourselves are we letting go of in the process? I like where you’re going! 🙂

  2. There’s a better movie pick: Star Trek 5.
    Kirk: Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!