Who Are We Without Trauma?
The relationship between memory and identity.
Posted March 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
What are the ramifications of tampering with one’s memory post-trauma?
Researchers have developed a method of suppressing an individual’s fear response to a traumatic memory by weakening the synaptic connections between neurons that form the memory. By keeping the memory intact but extinguishing an overactive fear response, the individual maintains a complete narrative history, but is able to function normally without having overwhelming panic responses to triggers.
Fear responses in humans have developed as a survival technique in response to dangerous situations. Some fear responses, however, are debilitating. For example, a war veteran with PTSD may have an overactive fear response to the sound of a car backfiring, which may trigger memories of gunfire. Brain stimulation technology in humans would weaken the connection between the nerve cells involved in forming this memory, resulting in a normalized response to the auditory signal.
Brain stimulation technology used to suppress an individual’s fear response to a traumatic memory alters that individual’s identity. While the benefit of normalizing fear responses is clear, it must be weighed against the ethical concerns.
Our memories and experiences as a whole contribute to our identity, which constantly evolves as new experiences create new memories. It may be argued that a person’s true identity is how that person identified before the traumatic event came to pass. However, if we could select a point in time at which we could identify a person’s “true” identity, we might run the risk of pointing to a time before that individual was capable of forming memories.
For example, if a two-year-old were to experience an emotionally scarring event, she may be henceforth changed. Assume that she is able to recall the traumatic event, but has no memories of the rest of the first two years of her life. Her “true” identity would lie at a point before the traumatic event. All her experiences and memories from that point forward would, in essence, form a “false” identity. The question is whether her “true” identity indeed lies at a point before the traumatic event—where there are no memories, and where memories are part of forming an identity—or if the memory of the traumatic event is a necessary ingredient in formulating her true identity as she becomes capable of forming memories.
A new question about identity arises with the possibility of brain stimulation technology being used in this way. After the synapse is weakened, does the individual indeed “go back” to the person she was before the traumatic event took place, or does she take on another, new identity?
For example, say that before X went to war—at point A—he had normal fear responses to cars backfiring. After returning home from war—at point B—he suffered from PTSD and had an overactive fear response. After brain stimulation technology “erased” the traumatic memory—at point C—he had a normal fear response once again. What brain stimulation technology does not do is erase X’s memory of going to war. So, the event at point B makes it impossible for point A and point C to be identical. X cannot “go back” to being X at point A when he is at point C.
If the events at point B never happened, X could remain X at point A. At point C, he has not become X at point A, who would (as we know from the existence of point B) have PTSD from going to war. At point C he has become X at point C who does not have PTSD from going to war, necessarily making him different from X at point A.
The artificial change imposed on X via brain stimulation interrupts the natural evolution of X as he moves along the points of his life. While this does not necessarily indicate that brain stimulation technology cannot be used, it does mean that individuals must understand that their identity will potentially be altered by artificial means.
Patients with dementia are often considered in debates over whether changes in memory result in changes in identity. The issue that dementia raises with regard to brain stimulation technology involves memory enhancement rather than suppression.
Researchers have found a way to stimulate the hippocampus in rats so that they recall memories that they otherwise wouldn’t. Patients with dementia would undoubtedly benefit from such technology if it became available to humans. Where memory enhancement technology may result in the effective restoration of an individual’s identity, memory suppression technology may result in the diminution of an individual’s identity.
If memory suppression technology were available, it would need to be regulated. Those regulations would dictate the set of individuals to whom the technology is available. What is not traumatic to one person may indeed be traumatic to another, however, so determining the limits of what is a normal fear response and what is not may be a difficult task.
Further, the regulatory body would be faced with the following question: If we have this technology, are we ethically compelled to use it to enhance healthy people? That is, if any memory leads to any level of negative reaction in an individual, why not “erase” those memories and improve that person’s overall quality of life?
The agency tasked with regulating brain stimulation technology should first allow it to be used on those patients who inarguably suffer from a debilitating fear response. Many of these patients will likely have gone through therapy, and it should be required that before this technology is used, therapists or clinicians discuss with patients the interrelation of memory and identity, and that patients give their informed consent—it may be just as traumatic for an individual to go through the process and emerge with a new trauma because she feels she has lost her identity. The benefits of this technology outweigh the concerns only if the proper procedure is followed.
A version of this piece also appears in Voices in Bioethics.
My forthcoming book, Elle, centers on questions about memory and identity following a trauma.
© Kaitlin Puccio
University of California - Riverside, “How particular fear memories can be erased: Findings have therapeutic implications in PTSD and phobias,” ScienceDaily, August 2017.