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Amnesia Is the New Bliss or Is It?
Late last November, an episode of 60 Minutes, reported by Lesley Stahl, examined the potentiality of a prescription drug called propranolol. This was the first time I'd ever heard of propranolol, and I haven't seen any major news source mention the drug since that evening. This, I suppose, is not surprising; in fact, I suspect many people stopped reading this column the moment they hit the word propranolol and didn't immediately recognize what it was. But propranolol might be the most philosophically vexing pharmaceutical since Prozac: It openly questions the significance of reality. This seems wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Propranolol is the closest society has come to making the 1996 film Brain Candy seem prophetic.
Understanding propranolol begins with understanding adrenaline, specifically how adrenaline impacts memory. Try to recall the most intense moments of your life (car accidents, fistfights, over-the-top sexual encounters, et cetera). In most cases, you will remember the details from those events far more vividly than less meaningful, more conventional episodes from everyday existence. This is (at least partially) the product of adrenaline; the cerebral rush of adrenaline that accompanies intense circumstances burns those memories into your brain (1). Adrenaline makes us remember things.
When humankind was young, this process offered a sociobiological evolutionary advantage: If Early Man got especially freaked out by a tiger attack, that hardwiring taught him to stay out of tiger country. However, tigers are no longer a pressing issue in Modern Man's life. Today, adrenaline more often makes Modern Man remember the events he'd most like to forget. This is why we have disorders like posttraumatic stress: Many people (and particularly war veterans) cannot psychologically overcome the worst moments from their life; the experiences never stop seeming vivid. Adrenaline has galvanized memories they don't want to recall.
This brings us to propranolol.
If a surplus of adrenaline makes us remember, it stands to reason that a deficit of adrenaline would help us forget. And this is what propranolol does. It inhibits the chemical rush that makes memories hyperconcrete. It doesn't erase memories, but it makes them more abstract and less painful. In theory, giving accident victims immediate doses of propranolol could dramatically change how lucidly they remember the horror of a specific experience. What's even crazier is the possibility of propranolol working retroactively: It appears that patients might be able to erode traumas from the distant past by ingesting the drug and self-triggering memories on purpose (i.e., you repeatedly take propranolol and fixate on something that happened 20 years ago over time, that specific memory grows hazy and normative).
It is hard to imagine how propranolol, used judiciously, wouldn't be good for society. It's impossible to justify why a 9-year-old who watched his parents get murdered needs to remember precisely what that looked (and felt) like; I'd feed that theoretical kid a cereal bowl of propranolol. But the problem (of course) is that our society is traditionally terrible at judicious drug use. And while the application of propranolol almost always seems reasonable on a case-by-case basis, the idea of propranolol (2) is significantly more complicated.
How big is your life? That is neither a rhetorical nor impossible question. The answer is easy: Your life is as big as your memory. Forgotten actions still have an impact on other people, but they don't have an impact on you; this is the entire point of Memento.
Reality is defined by what we know, and we (obviously) can't know what we don't remember. What this means is that propranolol provides an opportunity to shrink reality. It doesn't make past events wholly disappear from the mind, but it warps their meaning and context. So if people's personalities are simply the aggregation of their realities (and if reality is just an aggregation of memories), it can be argued that propranolol is a drug that makes people's lives artificially smaller. This makes certain kinds of people nervous, including those involved with the President's Council on Bioethics.
"The place of memory in the pursuit of happiness suggests something essential about human identity," states the PCOB in a 2003 study titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.
"By 'rewriting' memories pharmacologically, we might succeed in easing real suffering at the risk of falsifying our perception of the world and undermining our true identity."
As is so often the case with scientific innovations that feel like hypothetical problems, it's easy to imagine dystopian worst-case scenarios involving propranolol (3). What if the government used this drug to intensify the brutality of warfare, knowing the long-term cost on soldiers could be chemically mitigated? What if people used it simply because they didn't want to fixate over ex-girlfriends (4) or the 1982 NFC championship? It would seem that propranolol like virtually everything else invented by man has a short-term upside and a long-term consequence. The small picture provides benefits for victims of genuine pain; the big picture suggests a confused society that consciously elects to expunge the pain that makes us human. But perhaps there is a third picture that's even bigger: Do people have the right to create their reality? Who gets to decide the size of someone's life?
For a variety of reasons, the premise of taking a pill that changes your relationship with a memory seems scary. But we are already doing this all the time; our current means are just less effective. People get drunk in order not to care about things. People watch escapist movies to distract themselves from the stress of real life. Most significantly, we all distort the emotive meaning of our own past, usually without even trying; that's what nostalgia is. So let's assume that propranolol was abused to the highest possible degree; let's assume people started taking propranolol to edit every arbitrary memory that contained any fraction of mental discomfort. Ideologically, this would almost certainly be bad for the health of the world. But I still don't think it's something we could ethically stop people from doing.
The risk, I suppose, is that average people might behave differently if they had no fear of remorse or humiliation; instead of thinking, I will regret this in the morning, they might think, I better remember to make myself forget this in the morning.
Few things have been worse for society than the cultural evolution away from personal responsibility; I have no doubt that the world would be better off if more people felt guiltier about more things. But that sentiment is only my reality, and it's a specific reality I have created. The PCOB is certainly correct: Drugs like propranolol probably are "undermining our true identity." But I'm pretty sure that's precisely what a lot of people want.
(1) This research is predominantly credited to James McGaugh and
Larry Cahill at the University of California, Irvine.
(2) Just in case you're wondering, propranolol was not created for this purpose; it was originally designed as a heart drug.
(3) People do this all the time. Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996; not coincidentally, Gattaca was released the next year.
(4) Such as Kate Winslet.
Source: By Chuck Klosterman, men.msn.com/articlees.aspx?cp-documentid=4219207>1=9311
Editor's question: Is the physical reaction associated with the memory also removed or just the mental connection?