The Ethics regarding the Practice of Suppressing Emotional Memories

Matthew Hutson of Psychology Today writes:

“Memories make us who we are- even, or perhaps especially- the painful ones. What would life be like if we could erase their emotional associations? It’s not just a hypothetical question; scientists are finding that the drug propranolol, originally developed for hypertension, can prevent posttraumatic stress disorder if taken soon after a stressful event- or even reduce symptoms decades later if taken during therapy sessions. The drug works by blocking adrenaline, whose release helps solidify memories. But the intervention is ripe for misuse, and its effects on personality (will it blunt happy thoughts too?) are yet unclear.”

It is hard to speculate whether or not I would use medications to dampen an emotional memory, because I have not been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nor have I ever been in a situation medically stressful enough to warrant such diagnosis. (However, it is speculation that comprises opinion.) Ethically, I would not take a drug that inhibits any memory, emotionally painful or otherwise.

Memories can be haunting. When my step-mother left my father, my father tried to commit suicide. He was drunk when he told me; I was only 18. That is something an 18 year old is not easily mentally capable of processing. When I was 20, my mother died. A twenty year old woman needs her mother more than anything in the world. It is at twenty years old that a woman really becomes a woman and begins entering into life changes- college, marriage, children.

I have lived through my parent’s divorce, and my father’s second divorce. I have seen my mother’s boyfriend drunk, mean and mentally abusive. I have been mentally abused- I have told I am worthless, stupid, fat, ugly, and a piece of white trash. I have been told my male babysitter was a convicted child molester, though I have no memories of being molested myself; I do not think I was molested. (I think one can imagine the damage knowing this can cause.) I have seen the cuts and bruises and blood from where my mother and her boyfriend got beaten over the head, with beer bottles, from “an old friend”.

These are bittersweet memories. Though haunting, without these memories, I would live with regret; I would lack strength of character and wisdom. It is easy to occasionally want a pill that can make you happier; no one desires a hard life. Growth is an important part of life and an important aspect of our personalities. Memories make us who we are. If you take away a person’s memories by hiding them, they will cease to be who they are; they will cease to be human.

I have not been raped, had an abortion, been in war, or been through a major car accident or surgery. I have not been through any debilitating experiences. It is through my own experiences, however, I have learned. It is through these memories, I have learned not to repeat history. I do not want these things in my life; I do not want to do them myself. (I do not want to be abusive, for example.) The interactions of individuals in a society are based upon learning.

There is potential in these medications, when used properly. If used alongside proper therapy, they might help the anxiety levels in patients with PTSD. It is always exciting to find a new drug that can help heal a human who has been through traumatic experiences, but could healing be compromised by suppression? Based on my knowledge, therapy exists to analyse memories and teach coping mechanisms- the very opposite of suppression. The brain has the potential for natural coping mechanisms, and though physically it may need help in some people, the implications of memory altering drugs are frightening.

I have lived through multiple moves, childhood divorces, changing schools, starting and quitting college and getting married. Though most of these are positive memories, they warrant discussion because psychologists often diagnose depression deriving from life changes. In the past, I was diagnosed with depression and put on several medications. It is not my intention to discuss depression medications, (the key difference between depression medications and memory suppressing medications lie in the way they interact with the brain- one fixes what is already damaged, the other suppresses.) though there is an important connection.

If life changes cause depression, and serious traumatic life changes cause PTSD, it is merely a matter of time before memory suppressing medication will be given to “treat” things as minor as “the blues”. If you look at psychiatric history, it is already being done with depression medications. Many people who are not seriously depressed are given medications they should not be on. Many medical doctors, who should not be analysing the psyche, are handing out medications in lieu of proper mental health care. It is easy to see how the same path could be followed using memory suppressing medications.

It is an ethical line to be drawn, and though I can see the potential in serious illnesses, it is an idealistic, even controlling concept. Life is hard; there is no doubt in that. It is with that thought, I am decisively against my own personal use of these medications.