Forget Me Not

So, one of the new TV series we’ve been starting to watch is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.  We haven’t watched that many eps yet, but overall we’ve enjoyed it.  Eliza Dushku plays an operative for a private agency who’s agents are programmed (imprinted) to assume any identity and skillset needed.  When finished, their minds are made to forget everything that just happened and are left as blank-slates for the next imprinting.  (Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being able to do that after most Philadelphia Eagles’ games, actually, but that’s all crazy science fiction stuff, right?)

This show crossed my mind today when I came across a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience about the identification of a biochemical pathway involved in inhibitory learning.  What’s that?  Inhibitory learning is essentially “un-learning” – forgetting altogether or diminishing the response to very stressful events and memories.  It’s one mechanism humans use to cope with really bad things – the mental equivalent of the extreme of "blocking it out" to the more commonplace “time heals all wounds”.
It’s thought that defects in inhibitory learning can lead to phobias, anxiety disorders and more recently post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  People suffering from these ailments are unable to exhibit “normal” responses to external stimuli – often debilitatingly so.  The researchers were able to show that deletion in one of the receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate (think: MSG) prevented mice from being to “unlearn” a painful stimuli or “forget” an old arrangement to a maze.  (I feel that way sometimes when can’t find my car after I’ve parked it somewhere other than my “usual” spot in our lot at work…)

The hypothesis is that by cranking up the glutamate sensing system you might be able to help folks get past their phobias or allow PTSD sufferers to be able to better cope with the world again.
Now mice in a maze are a long way from a treatment, but it’s enticing to think about being able to diminish the effects of bad memories.  Bad date got you afraid of asking someone out?  Poof.  No problem.  Tough landing on a runway got you afraid of flying?  Zot .. and you’re on your way.  It looks pretty easy on Dollhouse.
What do you think?  Are there memories that you can’t seem to get rid of that you would purge?  For me, I don’t think so – I don’t have many traumatic things that I obsess over and think my bad memories help me appreciate the good ones that much more.
Now if I could only find my car…

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19 thoughts on “Forget Me Not

  1. I can definitely think of a few bad memories I'd like to blot out, but you're probably right…the bad makes the good that much better. Now the flying thing…I'm terrified to fly and haven't since my early 20's. That's one fear I'd like to get rid of! :)

  2. Great post. (Especially since you found a way to work in Dollhouse!)As tempted as I am to say I'd love to not be able to remember any of the crappy/painful/scary/etc. stuff I've endured, what's that saying — if we forget history, we're doomed to repeat it? Something like that? My past experiences, good and bad, have shaped me into the person I am (for better or worse).One of my favorite quotes is: "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do." — Eleanor Roosevelt

  3. Yet another fascinating post from you that makes me want to drop everything and go pursue a degree in something science-y. :D ("Yes, I've got a B.S.S.–Bachelor's of Something Science-y.")What interesting questions these post. Of course being able to cure seemingly irrational and useless phobias would be a positive thing, but what would be the negative consequences? And is there a reason that in some cases our bodies are unable to forget?This post made me think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Just imagine the run on prescription strength Forgetitall in the days following Valentine's Day!

  4. Ah, instead of "What interesting questions these post," I'm thinking I meant "What interesting questions this post poses." Or something. Who knows, apparently my body decided writing that comment was traumatizing enough to make me forget how to structure a sentence.

  5. Dollhouse has been uneven, IMHO. My hope is that Fox gives it time to grow, and doesn't pull the plug just as it gets good (Firefly, anyone?).As for the removal of "bad" memories – that can be a boon or a bane. If the memories are truly traumatic, it might be good to remove them [1]. But what if idiots start to use them to remove the memory of that funny-horrible bad date they had last week? Or the government insists that the memory of the last war get removed? Those are admittedly social problems, but they are the sort of thing that we should start thinking about now. Ten years ago, lack of privacy didn't seem likely to happen any time soon, and look where we are now!John[1] But what if they are needed sometime later, say when testifying at trial?

  6. I've been going through a phase of introspection these last few months and I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I want all the bad memories and uncomfortable times.I was lamenting to a friend recently over some past grievances and pains and she said that if I didn't have them in my past I wouldn't be who I am today, and I'm pretty OK with who I am today so I wouldn't have it any other way.

  7. I think you should put the degree after your name. You can be: Joie M, BSS — in fact, put it on your credit card and watch folks treat you with more respekt.

  8. John — I agree — I wouldn't want those bad-date memories gone — think of what great stories they make. Also, in this "everyone's a winner" educational system we seem to have now, I think there's something fortifying about overcoming (or at least slogging though) the bad times.

  9. (Fish) — I think that's right. It seems that hoping someone with a phobia or PTSD would be a good thing, but its a slippery slope into a version of things where any bad thing gets erased. It'd be like a Memory Bail-Out. Hah!

  10. Anything is better than "Joie M, BM." Really, it's gotta be one of the most unfortunate degree abbreviations out there. Although I suppose BS isn't much better…

  11. Definitely raises some challenging metaphysical questions. While the concept of improving treatment for victims of violent crimes, combat and natural disasters is definitely a plus, it's also dangerous. What politically motivated bureaucracy or war-driven power wouldn't love to extend the use of violent force by keeping those most acquainted with it from breaking down under the adverse effects? Funny you mention Eternal Sunshine – what I love about that movie is the fight against the memories being erased, and the ultimate triumph over the memory loss. At risk of revealing how much of a geek I actually am, I think back to the great Star Trek TNG episode where Picard is allowed by Q to go back and change what he thought was one of his biggest mistakes (the fight that caused him to end up with an artificial heart). The domino effect landed Picard in a mediocre life, playing it safe and never achieving the potential he had in real life – and in the end, he realizes his mistakes and "youthful brashness"played a role in steering him into the better man he became….The physical pain response is a deeply necessary thing, and I think the emotional one is as well…

  12. What are the implications for society if this takes place, I wonder. I worry that these days some people would consider not getting their favorite parking spot "traumatic". But for real trauma, maybe if it's insurmountable, but I think that overcoming adversity teaches us strength, character and forgiveness.
    I especially like how you always find an appropriate scifi plot to go with your science posts, Steve. (Those sneaky amino acids are probably microchips trying to take over the planet! They would have to overthrow us first…..crazy paranoia or true conspiracy in the works……..)?

  13. Very interesting. I had never heard of this. It is interesting how atleast for me some painful memories fade and others persist. I hope they continue to research this further. Thanks Steve.

  14. Fascinating about the MSG. Personally, it gives me flushing and problems sleeping, so I steer clear of it.My father suffers from PTSD and it is from the Korean War. It was set off by 911 (we had thought he had had a stroke but then it was apparent it was PTSD) and ever after that, he can not cope with conflicting situations, even personal ones, and lives in a La-la-land of everything is wonderful.

  15. jim — no fears — I remember those eps all too well. Even worse, I remember (from the completely regrettable and forgettable ST:V) when Sybok (I think) was taking away people's unhappiness and bad memories and Kirk's response was "I need my pain!". Schlocky, yes — but ultimately true, I think.

  16. Fortunately, we're a long way from using this mechanism to "ease" someone's trauma — even if it is losing the best parking spot. Despite the possibility of helping the truly debilitated, it's a real slippery slope.

  17. i am watching dollhouse. i think eliza is a crap actress, but the show's fun. and i like it. :D
    i'm with you, though. maybe getting rid of bad memories might be good for some people, but i'll keep mine. i mean, i need those bad memories to learn lessons and not make the same mistakes again. hehe. and i do appreciate the good stuff so much more with those bad memories there.

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