Neuroscientists Working to Develop Drugs that Erase Painful Memories---What do You Think?

I just watched a 3-minute video that made me very uncomfortable. It discusses how neuroscience doctors are working to develop drug treatments that could erase traumatic memories form people's minds. In a country where 1 in 5 veterens come home suffering PTSD or depression--or perhaps in the wake of a massive natural disaster like the Japan quake and tsunami (not to mention Chile, Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and so many others)--revolutionary drug treatment like this could ease pain and suffering on a huge scale.

Part of the problem with trauma, as Robert Stolorow suggests in Trauma and Human Existence, is that trauma initiates a sense of loss of security and of anxiety about the unpredictability of our world after the initial event occurs. The anxiety involves the impression of uncanniness, or the feeling “not-being-at-home” in the world. Everyday meaning in life collapses as the world takes on a strange and alien tone, and the one who experiences trauma feels incongruent, isolated, and bizarre because he simply cannot see how anyone else could possibly experience the rupture and ensuing chaos in the same way. And we all know the potential side effects: inability to sleep, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbing, hyperviligence, being easily startled, heart palpitations, panic attacks, depression, despair, thoughts of suicide...the list goes on. Trauma literally turns a person's life upside down. What would it be to simply take a pill and make it all go away a trauma victim can feel at home again?

Donald Kalsched, in The Inner World of Trauma, uses the word trauma to mean any experience that causes unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be "unbearable" means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which protect us from perceiving horror and pain. Perhaps, with a simple pill, we could prevent that overwhelm. But, do painful memories serve a purpose? And if we simply repress them, where do they go? If memories are completely repressed, the theory of the unconscious insists they will only pop up somewhere else with even greater force---demanding to be engaged.

Here's the link to the video (hint: click the "x" to close the other video ads running during playback). What do you think?

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Comment by Mark Winborn on March 31, 2011 at 8:52am
I think the definition of "erasing memories" presented in the report is somewhat misleading.  I don't believe they're actually talking about a literal erasing of memory but rather a diminishment of the intensity of the affect associated with the memory that is formed.  For example, in NYC emergency rooms there is research going on with administering Inderal (a beta-blocker) to victims of rape.  The idea behind this is that the Inderal inhibits the release of particular hormones in response to stress/trauma.  The findings are that rape victims who receive the Inderal quickly after the traumatic incident have a better recovery than individuals who don't because the memories that are established are less intense, the patient is better able to grapple with the experience because they aren't as likely to be in a state of being completely affectively overwhelmed.  As depth therapists we need to bear in mind that memories, archetypes, and complexes aren't just psychological/spirit events but that they also have clear physiological correlates (see Louis Stewart's article "Affect and Archetype").  It doesn't have to be a sell out of depth psychology to try to address and understand both ends of the continuum of psyche and soma.
Comment by Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D. on March 29, 2011 at 7:25pm
I'm not a scientologist (thank God) but after reading this article, I may be ready to join!...psychiatry=brain control!! In Jungian terms, such a thought of using these drugs is tantamount to calling them anti-individuation substances! The wide use of antidepressant medication is scary. Anti-depressant medication not only denies one the experience of depression but changes the whole personality. Is it the therapeutic effect causing this change or its side effects? No matter. Now, take away traumatic memories and you wipe away a change at catharsis, abreaction...healing. Pain is a gift and without it life would be reduce to a world of automatons. In addition, we lose all sense of what normal means - that "abnormal" insidiously parades around as if it were the new normal. As a practicing psychologist there are times when it is clinical indicated to refer a patient to a psychiatrist for a med eval, but these should be rare events, not the rule. Sorry Big Pharm. Optimally, the day will come when psychologists will have prescriptive authority so that we can refer a patient to a specialist who understands both mind and body (not to mention soul, psyche=soul}. Our mandate is not solely to relieve suffering, but to help people understand the underlying causes so that they can become more whole human beings. There is no better motivation that pain to have people look at what ails them. Finally, I think any drug that has death listed in its side effect profile should be banned!!!
Comment by steve hulbert on March 24, 2011 at 3:02pm

Hi Bonnie - although I have had (as have all of us) painful (although perhaps not traumatic - as in "unbearable") experiences that I'd like to forget, I have the sense that those experiences help to define who I am as a person. I am who I am. I believe it's important to be faithful to oneself - to be truly authentic. I agree with your suggestion that just taking a pill is not likely to make the trauma "go away." It will present itself in some way. This all reminds me (please forgive the pop-culture reference) of the 1980 version of Flash Gordon where the following conversation takes place -

Female attendant - "Drink this."

Dale Arden - "What is it?"

Attendant - "It has no name. Many brave men died

to bring it here from the galaxy of Pleasure. It will

make your nights with Ming more agreeable."

Dale - "Will it make me forget?"

Attendant - "No, but it will make you not mind remembering."

Perhaps this is the best we can hope for.

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