The Seduction of Eradicating Memories

It’s been 10 years since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out, which is kind of hard for me to believe, but there you go. Tempus fugit, etc. One of the film’s core themes, of course, is the erasure of memories via the use of advanced technology, through a firm that specialises in selectively eliminating what you don’t want to know anymore. I’ve seen brain wiping pop up on Almost Human, where back alley operations erase memories–or help characters try to restore them. It’s cropped up again on Firefly, and on a slew of other shows where the sociological and sociological ramifications of being able to manipulate memory and thought are explored.

Memory erasure seems to be an enduring and very seductive theme in pop culture, as indeed are larger manipulations of memory, attested to by a lengthy TV Tropes page on the subject of memory. It is the brain wipe in particular that fascinates me because of what it implies about humans and our society, and how we interact with the world around us; there is, evidently, a very real and urgent part of many of us that finds the idea of wiping memories intriguing and possibly appealing.

Voluntary brain wipes are often presented as a way out of a terrible situation, so people can stop being tormented by memories of something that they have strong feelings about. It might be a traumatic event, it might be happy memories with someone who has passed away, it might be memories that are key to a political intrigue, but in all cases, the subject wants to forget them and know there’s no chance they will come back. (In the most simplistic version of memory erasure, at any rate — more complex stories have us seeing characters who add triggers to retrieve their memories at a later date.)

Why does the idea of being able to erase memories selectively and at will appeal, and what does it say about us? Many humans seem to have incidents in their past that they urgently want to forget, but what about the way in which those incidents shaped them? Would their personalities and experiences still make sense without that context? This becomes an especially troubling question in the face of trauma, because who wants to suggest that a trauma victim/survivor should be forced to relive or live with the memory of a horrible event?

If a woman is raped and wants to erase her memory of the event, that’s her personal choice, but what if the erasure isn’t complete and she finds herself encountering flashbacks and things that don’t make sense, only to discover later that she erased her memory? What if information surfaces in the case but the rapist can’t be prosecuted because the main witness doesn’t remember it? What happens if her friends and family all know, but she does not, and they’re forced to tiptoe around the issue and pretend they aren’t painfully aware of what happened? How do memory wipes affect the people around you?

And why do we have such a desire to suppress things in our past? I sometimes wishfully think that I’d like to erase memories of times I’ve really humiliated myself, for example, but would I really want to do that? Didn’t I learn from those experiences? If I erase them, will I make the same mistake again? More critically, without the context of that memory, will I understand why it was important to modify my behaviour, and what led to a shift in the way I interact with the world, or will I return to old ways of thinking and being?

While I’m sometimes frustrated by the pervasive way those memories come back to haunt me even as I can’t remember the answer to a question I asked three minutes ago, I’m not sure I’d be so willing to give them up if someone offered to erase them, because the cost to me, and the people around me, might be too high. The cost of bleaching memories away and turning myself into a new person might be, well, becoming a new person, the kind of person I don’t want to be.

The brain is a mysterious and complex organ, and thus far, most of the talk about memory erasure is purely conjectural. While there are some medications that induce amnesia (some of which are used therapeutically in contexts like surgery and sedation, where a patient might not want to remember the details of a surgery) and some therapies that purport to help people lock or unlock memories, we’re still a long way from being able to selectively zap certain areas of the brain to effortlessly eradicate their contents. We may never get there.

But it does raise interesting ethical and cultural questions that pop culture seems eager to explore. We live in a world where people are often eager to sweep their own misdeeds and worst moments under the carpet, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that there’s something appealing about the idea of eliminating the memories of these events too, so people can avoid living with the shame. More deeply than that, of course, lies the issue of wrestling with when memory wiping might be indicated for someone who is struggling in the aftermath of a severe traumatic event.

Would you sacrifice memory for a chance at peace?