Life is too short to spend it bogged down with painful memories. Trauma may build character, but pleasure primes the pathways of success, and modern humans spend too much time wallowing in trauma and minimizing pleasure. While hard-bitten life stories make for good literary memoirs and Oscar-bait films, they are hardly the material we want for our own lives. If advanced society means advanced access to information and opportunity, it should also mean advanced access to the memories of our choice; memories of happiness, pleasure, and success. From last-century’s psychotherapy to this century’s cognitive science, memory is no longer a mystery of the human condition, it is an upgradeable feature.
Let’s say you are the kind of despicable person — like a hit man or a politician or a contractor for Blackwater — who does nasty things that would cause any human emotional scars. How could you live with yourself without becoming a sociopath? Just because your job description makes you do horrible things doesn’t mean you have to live your entire life with the aftershocks of guilt. You can easily use a variety of chemical and therapeutic means to soften the memories of your horrible past and recreate yourself as a normal, happy well-adjusted person. This kind of memory softening is called “reconsolidation,” and it works by taking advantage of a property of the brain that automatically recodes a memory after it has been consciously recalled. Research has shown that if a traumatic memory is consciously recalled under the influence of a beta-blocking chemical (like Propranolol), that same memory will be reconsolidated with far less emotional impact than the original memory. In contrast, if a memory is encoded with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol (the very substances that beta-blockers inhibit), that memory will necessarily become traumatic. By all known psychiatric measurements, traumatic memories stunt the ability to grow emotionally and learn new things; they weigh down the psyche with emotional baggage. If you could chemically dump your baggage in the context of a friendly therapeutic setting, wouldn’t you? Or would you rather live your life with the emotional scars of a damaged character?
With PKMzeta, you may be able scratch later. to permanently dump your entire memory history in a single session that lasts less than a few hours.
Now let’s assume your whole life has been a walking train wreck of bad luck and bad memories from day one. Instead of drinking yourself to oblivion (which only temporarily erases memory), why not try a complete memory makeover? You could start by selectively erasing bad memories using reconsolidation techniques in the presence of an inhibitor that blocks the protein synthesis responsible for memory; this would result in the kind of memory tinkering made famous in the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This process is not as difficult as you might think; memory formation relies on a chain of genetic instructions in the hippocampus propagated by the interaction of calcium and proteins from the myosin Vb gene (MYO5B) at or near the neural synapse. This interaction is set in motion by hormonal responses to stimulus, both immediate and recalled, and if a memory is recalled while the myosin Vb synthesis is disrupted, there goes whatever memory you try to recall. Fade to black.
But say memory softening or even selective memory deletion isn’t enough for you. Let’s say you needed a total memory re-do so you can start building new memories from scratch. You’re in luck, because there is new evidence demonstrating that all your long term memory can be wiped out with a single local application of a protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor, such as protein kinase M zeta (PKMzeta). When PKMzeta is applied to rats their long-term associative memories vanish rapidly and they exhibit all the signs of irreversible amnesia, which means the protein kinase C isoform is essential to the proper maintenance of long term memory on a daily basis; block it long enough and your memories spontaneously vanish. With PKMzeta, you may be able to permanently dump your entire memory history in a single session that lasts less than a few hours, an interesting notion for those of us who wish we could start life over as someone new.
If you are considering radical memory intervention, it is always helpful to make a list of the new memories you want to imprint. Even though false memory imprinting is considered an unwanted side-effect of hypnotherapy – leading to many convoluted unproven claims of sexual abuse and abduction that were “recovered” from botched hypnotic sessions – this same technique can be used to imprint an entirely new set of life memories onto a receptive mind. While there is still controversy in the psychiatric community over the validity of false memory syndrome, the method for imprinting false memories is well understood. To imprint a false memory all you have to do is put the subject in a trance state (hypnotize them), plant the memory through suggestion, and then get the subject to accept and internalize that memory as part of their larger life story. When the subject is brought back out of the trance state, they will be able to talk about their new memories and fill in all the fine details for themselves; you would be surprised how readily the brain can fill in memory gaps and rationalize paradoxical memories all in the service of building a more fully realized ego. The memories don’t actually need to be true; they just need to be the ones you want. And don’t worry if you pick a memory that you don’t like, you can always have it erased and start over from scratch later.
James Kent is the former Publisher of Trip magazine and Editor of DoseNation.com. Additional reporting by David Perlman.