06 April 2009

Drugs to Edit Memory

Yet another discovery which sounds an alarm for the future health of cynicism among we plebes.
Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain [which] could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems....

The influx of money, talent and technology means that scientists are at last finding real answers about the brain — and raising questions, both scientific and ethical, more quickly than anyone can answer them.

Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that “cleared” the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?

And perhaps even more important, when scientists find a drug to strengthen memory, will everyone feel compelled to use it?

Which leads me to think again, as I did in response to the May 2008 report about a brain pacemaker to treat depression, of Greg Bear's 1997 book Slant. In it, he foretells of a future in which people become so immersed in the electronic information age that civilization reaches a crisis point.

In Bear’s future world, inhabitants are unaware that a crisis is unfolding, since it involves the very technology which keeps them submissive to the erosion of their surroundings. Most experiences with other humans are achieved not in person but electronically, by jacking oneself into the ‘net. Even sex is not immune.

The technology which keeps people in this future world content and accepting the status quo is “therapy” involving surgical adjustments to the brain. These procedures have become the norm, such that the “non-therapied” are considered the lunatics - the oddballs, malcontents, marginalized - and “normals” are as rare as the dodo. In some cases, the therapy amounts to the ultimate, permanent happy pill: no condition can make the therapied unhappy, even jailing.

Taking drugs to achieve the same thing I see as essentially no different. It’s more than ethical issues about individuals taking responsibility for their own actions that concerns me. I’m even more concerned about the potential for people in power, in collusion with the psychiatric industry which already wields its own power, to drug the plebes into accepting what they otherwise wouldn’t.

In that sphere, consumerism has been the most recent drug of choice, promoted by the haves to the (largely) have-nots.

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