Wouldn't it be great if we could simply forget certain things, if we could just wipe them right out of our memories? A bad breakup perhaps, or just an incredibly embarrassing moment that we all wish we didn't remember. I know I certainly have a few things I wouldn't mind forgetting, which is why the concept of memory erasure is pretty intriguing. It also relates to one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In this movie, a disasterous couple decides that they want to have their memory completely erased of each other, using the services of an organization called Laguna, Inc. In the movie, getting parts of one's memory erased is no more serious than getting a nose job. While technology today is not able to selectively erase memories, Eternal Sunshine gives a pretty accurate portrayal of how the brain and memories work. There's no real scientific babble, but it is very knowledgeable of how memories are formed, particularly ones stemming from an emotional event. As we know, two major areas of the brain are active in memory: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The amygdala is used especially in intensely emotional memories, and if it is left intact even if the hippocampus is damaged, people are able to subconsciously form memories. This is explored in Eternal Sunshine as Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, seems to have a sliver of an emotional memory from an event that was removed from her brain.
The process of having memories erased in the movie follows the reconsolidation theory, in which specific memories of whatever one is trying to forget are brought to mind, and attempted to be put into one's long term memory. Although it is not discussed in the movie, what is probably happening to cause this memory erasure is that the protein synthesis is being blocked by some drug as the memories are being recalled, effectively erasing them.
Although this is not yet possible in today's world, there are some similar experiments that attempt to mirror the effects. In our psychology book, it discusses a drug called propranolol, which blocks the effects of adrenaline on beta-adrenergic receptors. This drug dulled the recall of traumatic events in the subjects who received it. So people recalling a horrific car accident would show no more emotion than if they were describing the weather outside. This pill only blunted the effects of the memories; it did not erase them entirely.
All of these studies bring a certain ethical awareness with them. Should we be able to erase our memories? Most believe that they learn from their mistakes, and if we took our recollection of ever making mistakes away, where would we end up?
More on the reconsolidation theory: http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/13/5/536.full
Here's an article of a Harvard Study that attempted to make their own memory erasing drug: http://www.livescience.com/7315-drug-deletes-bad-memories.html
And, of course, a commercial for the fictional Laguna, Inc: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Meam4ixHR3s