The article “Epigenetic Priming of Memory Updating during Reconsolidation to Attenuate Remote Fear Memories” (published in Cell Magazine Volume 156, Issues 1-2, 16 January 2014, Pages 261-276) makes a claim that a drug HDAC2 inhibitor can erase traumatic memories and treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As if by erasing memory in the brain we can erase traumatic experience and make it as if nothing happened. All gone, all better. This amounts to a chemical lobotomy to erase memories. The lobotomy fantasy, even without a surgical ice pick, never seems to die.
Let’s even assume this could work, which is preposterous, and what happens to a rat’s memory of fear could apply to a specific localized memory of human fear. What we’re talking about here is external control over what we remember. Our brains could be controlled to select what is desirable memory from undesirable memory. This would amount to thought control of the highest order. Truly frightening.
Here’s the thing. In trauma, abuse and deprivation write a new and problematic play of consciousness, which overrides the regular play. There is only one treatment for trauma. It is to mourn the experience that formed the new play to render it powerless, whereby one relinquishes it, and returns to the old play. This is a difficult and painful process. There is pain in life, and it needs to be dealt with in a human way. That’s what it is to be human. Our suffering, trauma included, is not a brain problem, but a human problem. The brain is the theater where we inhabit our plays of consciousness.
In fact our primary plays of character are informed by loving responsiveness, deprivation and abuse throughout our development. With significant deprivation and abuse one forms character plays of ongoing internal war which eventually creates suffering and psychiatric symptoms. And here too, it is with mourning in the context of psychotherapy that allows the sufferer to actually relinquish a problematic or frightening play, and forge a new one written with responsiveness and respect.
The idea that we actually could erase specific memories is absurd and dangerous. And this magical idea is presented as a really good thing. Thought control, even if well intended, is always a bad thing and leads to cult control.
Robert A. Berezin, MD is the author of “Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain”