ALTERING WHAT WE REMEMBER
Who we are, how we feel about ourselves, not to mention how we organize our life is contingent on what we remember. Without our memory, our world collapses not unlike a black hole where all information is lost (or at least inaccessible).
Writing fiction is an actively engagement of memory. The characters’ memories, the way they are affected and deal with memories is an essential part of the story. In real life, when there is a trial, a witness is asked to recall what she or he saw. By recalling events, we engage in memory recall.
In the political realm, as people in Thailand comb their memories of recent events, we find that memories don’t always line up. People disagree as to what they saw or heard. Everyone has experienced the moment when someone else at an event gives a completely different description of what happened. You think that you are losing your mind or the other person has lost theirs.
Truth commissions, investigations and inquiries into government actions and those of protestors or demonstrators—as we recently the case in Thailand—relies upon the evidence of what happened and crucial to this process, are the memories of those who witnessed events. This raises questions as to how successful we are in avoiding ‘false memories’ in reaching the elusive goal of the truth. Can memories be shaped and altered by the images, speculations, and opinions of others? Any trial lawyer will tell you that this happens on a fairly frequent basis.
Memories are recalled from the brain. And each time they are accessed, there is the possibility of some changes that are caused outside of the consciousness of the person who remembers. Memory is not a pristine and pure process. It is colored by many different factors, including ideology, values, education, alcohol or drugs, the time of day (night time memories have its own set of issues), etc.
Not all memories are equal in the way they are acquired or processed. Highly traumatic experiences such as being shot, being shot at, beaten-up, or threatened, abused, or terrorized have a common thread. The events and actions induce fear. The memories that flood back re-create that sense of dread and fear.
If there were a pill that erased or reduced such a memory, would you take it?
“In 2002 and 2003, studies indicated that another drug, propranolol, could prevent or reduce post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. *** [Elizabeth Loftus] started with attitudinal research, asking people whether they would take a memory-dampening drug after being mugged and beaten. Nearly half wanted the right to take the drug, but only 14 percent said they would do it. She was surprised. If she had endured such an assault, she decided, she would take the drug.” Link: http://www.slate.com/id/2251888
Should governments prescribe such drugs for those who have gone through a crackdown that has resulted in the lost of life and injuries? This is the ‘blue pill’ from the Matrix situation. You take the offered pill and soon you are able to forget the reality and cruise on with a wonderful life. Loftus says it all comes down to a matter of freedom of choice. Do you wish to remember or forget the things that cause you feel dread and fear?
Is the loss of such memory a good thing for society? If we people choose to take the pill, does that dispense with the need to find the truth of what happened, how it happened, and who was responsible?
Bad memories have always played an important role in our evolution. If we find a way to purge those memories, aren’t we empowering the more thoughtless, dangerous elements in society a free pass? After all, we can forget the fear they have caused.
The other side, is such “memories, Loftus and her coauthors noted, caused ‘significant costs to sufferers, their families, and society,’ such as traffic deaths and reduced productivity.”
This threatens to become an exercise in social and political engineering, controlling the fear of others is often the first step along the road to tyranny. To see someone killed in a car crash has a different ramification than seeing someone shot during a demonstration. Fear and outrage might be eliminated by taking a pill, and that is humane in the case of a single individual, but what about the interests of the larger society? As a collective group, is the public interests advanced by erasing bad memories? Or is it advanced by coming to terms with events and adjusting policies to prevent such events from recurring.
Memories, false memories, ways to induce forgetting, and the kinds of memories that cause harm raise many difficult questions. Elizabeth Loftus came to this conclusion: “When we have mastered the false memory recipes, we will need to worry about who controls them. What brakes should be imposed on police, lawyers, advertisers? More than ever, we'll need to constantly keep in mind that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”