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[Op-Ed] Erasing Memories

Posted April. 09, 2009 08:14,   


The 1998 film “Dark City” by director Alex Proyas is about aliens with supernatural power that manipulate human memory. The movie was critically acclaimed, as it raised the philosophical question whether a person is the same if memories are injected into his or her head. Director Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” was about a man with short-term memory loss who tracks down the murderer of his wife. The movie shows what one believes as truth could be based on distorted memories.

If humans have no memory, a horrible situation would result. People with no memory could not even recognize their own families. Douwe Draaisma, a Dutch psychologist and the author of “Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older,” said, “Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases.” The pleasant memories disappear while negative images that trigger unpleasant feelings are remembered in detail. That is why people wish for drugs that can erase bad memories and leave good ones. Psychologists say the worse memories are, the longer they last.

A medical team at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center has discovered a way to delete or strengthen memories by using enzymes that promote or hinder the memory functions of brain cells. When the team injected the drug ZIP into mice that knew how to evade an electric shocker, they could no longer avoid the device because they could not remember the equipment’s location.

Tests have been on just mice, but extended research could make it possible for memories to be erased in humans. Injecting ZIP could remove displeasure or fear caused by bad memories. On the contrary, amnesia could be treated by injecting drugs that strengthen memory. A criminal could erase memories of crimes he or she committed. Living with a too detailed memory about unpleasant events is like torture. After all, the adage that forgetfulness is a gift from God could very well be right.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)