Scientists’ new-found ability to turn bad memories into good is fine for a lab mouse but not for human beings, says Tiffany Jenkins
In Alexander Pope’s beautiful poem Eloisa to Abelard, about a tragedy that befalls two lovers when Eloisa’s family discovers the secret affair and in vengeance castrates Abelard, Eloisa expresses anguish over the knowledge that, as he is now a eunuch, he would not be able to return her feelings even if he wanted to. Eloisa compares her sad lot to that of an imaginary virgin, and begs, not for forgiveness, but to forget: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! /The world forgetting, by the world forgot. /Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!” For Eloisa, ignorance of her past love would be bliss.
That it could be possible to forget a heartbreaking affair is an alluring idea, one so powerful it inspired the eponymously named film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: in which, when a romance goes wrong, an estranged couple undergo a procedure to erase their memories of the relationship. “Adults are, like, this mess of sadness and phobias,” the receptionist in the memory-erasing clinic says before the couple have wiped from their minds all the things did together: the arguing, the fighting, the tears and the regret.
No life is untouched by misery so it is attractive to dream of a scenario in which it would be possible to look back on one’s past selectively, remembering only the good times. Up until now, such a thing has been the subject of fantasy but scientists are inching closer to making it a reality.
Researchers have known for some time that somewhere in the brain neurons that encode the memory of where things occurred link up with the emotions felt during that event. This knowledge is already used by therapists to treat victims of trauma or depression, by trying to replace negative associations with positive ones.
Writing in the journal Nature, neuroscientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they had found a way to pinpoint and manipulate the emotional responses to good and bad memories, through conducting experiments on the brains of mice. Scientists successfully rewired the circuits of the brains and turned negative memories into positive ones. Sad mice are now happier mice, apparently.
Although applying the same technique to humans is unlikely to work in quite the same way – mice, you might have noticed, are rather different to men and women, and it’s not easy to ask them how they think or feel, so the results of the research are open to interpretation and analysis – this hasn’t stopped speculation about the potential application of this new research on human beings.
The possibility that people could keep a memory but dissociate particular feelings from it is not as remote as it once was. In decades to come, hypothetically, an event that made you feel bad could be engineered to be remembered as making you feel good.
One can empathise with the desire to obliterate all memory of bad relationships, mistakes and missed opportunities, but there are serious dangers with such a strategy. The very idea of forgetting the worst or changing how we feel about it diminishes what it is to have lived.
I don’t say this to dismiss the horrendous experiences too many people suffer. Most of us are reasonably lucky, but others encounter traumatic events they continue to relive in their minds, so much so that they cannot cope with day-to-day living. In these exceptional instances, it would be a welcome relief for them to have their memory manipulated as well as being a blessing for their loved ones who care for them. If these experiments help us to understand trauma, if they inspire better treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, where the memories incapacitate people from living a normal life, then they are to be welcomed.
However, life and the emotions one feels are not simple. They cannot be reduced to being good or bad, or to be something you want to choose to save or delete. Often we only appreciate the positive with the negative; the high with the low. If we could experience only happiness, or just cheery feelings, then we would not feel these emotions as intensely or as roundly as we do now – they would mean less.
Pain is the flip side to happiness: we need one to appreciate the other. Our memories would not be as complex and deep if we tried to rub out the bits we didn’t enjoy or like that much.
With hope and expectation comes the possibility of failure and disaster, and it’s not always clear when one ends and another begins. When erasing the memory of the difficult love affair in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters also delete the wonderful feelings they shared when they met and fell in love. The grief one feels in losing someone when a romance fails is the price we pay for it being a worthwhile venture to embark on in the first place.
By manipulating memory, not only would our positive emotions be deadened – we wouldn’t learn from our experiences. We might fail to work out that it’s best to avoid certain kinds of love affairs, or situations, because they tend to end badly.
A life lived without fully remembering the bad times is one that is limited. This is why I am sceptical of the idea, expressed so often when policymakers talk about wellbeing, or the happiness agenda, that it should be our goal to be happy. I would far rather be unhappy but awake to life. I would rather be aware of what is happening, even if it’s terrible, than be contented but effectively half-asleep.
Let’s not forget the driver that misery can be. It can motivate you to pick yourself up and try for something better, someone nicer, a more stimulating or higher paying job, an improved society. And plenty of events and experiences – the horror of war, most obviously – should never be forgotten or erased or tinted with a cheerfulness that they do not deserve. Sadness is not something we should seek to avoid.