At What Point Does Altering a Memory Become Unethical?


The state of the science and ethics of using biological techniques to alter or “erase” traumatic memories is explored in The Atlantic. With “reconsolidation,” for example, “old information is called to mind, modified with the help of drugs or behavioral interventions, and then re-stored with new information incorporated—like a piece of metal that’s been melted down, remolded, and left to harden into a different shape.” Some studies show it may alleviate PTSD symptoms but, the article asks, is it crossing a line to re-shape people’s sense of reality?

Changing Memories to Treat PTSD (The Atlantic, August 27, 2014)


  1. While I don’t support the use of drugs to alter memories, I’m wondering in what way the techniques described in the article are substantively different from what happens in EMDR therapy. My experience with EMDR is that a traumatic memory is recalled and then I am able to distance myself from the emotional impact of the memory by figuratively cutting the emotional cord between the memory and my current self. In this case, the memory is altered because the psychic and emotional charge has been disconnected from it. I think that’s altering a memory in a positive and healing way, and I don’t see an ethical problem with that.

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    • Well, some psych drugs/treatments cause unspecific amnesia (anterograde amnesia by benzodiazepines, retrograde in case of ECT). Other may have a smaller effect – antidepressants are supposed to increase neurogenesis which was linked to forgetting in animal models. You cannot specifically erase a single memory – you’re messing up the whole person.

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  2. Darby,

    If you check out the beginning of the article, it goes on to say that they have used both drugs and different “behavioral interventions” to minimize or destroy certain painful, stressful memories in trauma survivors. What raises a red flag to me is their vagueness about their methods, which worked very well because you interpreted it as quite benign as a savvy long term survivor no less.

    But, those of us who know about main stream psychiatry know is it anything but benign and one can count on its so called “treatments” to be “brain disabling” and harmful for the most part as Dr. Peter Breggin exposed long ago.

    As you probably know, ECT is alive and well and growing by leaps and bounds now that SSRI antidepressants have been exposed as harmful and mostly worthless. Be careful what you wish for as the saying goes. And now there are the deep brain stimulation and transcranium magnetic brain stimulation, which are new forms of electroshock that can cause seizures, hearing loss and many other negative effects that are lied and denied by their pushers just like ECT and neuroleptics. Dr. Phillip Hickey did an extensive article on DBS at MIA and it was not very positive just like honest articles written about ECT show that it is worthless while causing brain damage, permanent loss of memory, career and other skills and other crucial assets for functioning often leading to suicide once the victims learn the truth like Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath. The book, Doctors of Deception, exposes all the lies and fraud associated with ECT since a small group of ECT shock doctors headed by Max Fink have a monopoly on it and push their lies on either duped or complicit safety agencies like the FDA and so called patients.

    Also, you may know that lobotomy and similar horrors have been making a great comeback though called by other sneaky, more innocent sounding names like cingulotomy and other very dangerous brain operations that often leave the victims’ brains seriously damaged so they lose control of their ability to think/function, become incontinent, etc. Many of these “brain operations” are admitted failures or just plain butchery!

    I have long admired you as a very tough survivor with much to share with other survivors. I just thought I would suggest that you might want to consider psychiatry’s sordid history before assuming these wolves and sheep’s clothing are adopting nice safe new methods like EMDR that will solve all our problems.

    Toward the end of the article, the new mantra of blaming the victims for their trauma is included by perpetrating the BIG LIE that some people are more susceptible to trauma due to their bad genes, bad brains and the usual litany of lies of the biopsychiatry/Big Pharma cartel that have been disproven time after time. Most recently Dr. Joanna Moncrieff’s current blog on the front page of MIA now debunks the latest scam pretense about great genetic discoveries for “schizophrenia” that even Dr. Thomas Insel, Head of the NIMH, has admitted has no reliability or validity because there is no scientific, medical or other evidence behind this bogus, voted in stigma. Moreover, as Dr. Mary Boyle shows in her great book, Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion?, there are many different hodgepodges of a wide variety of disparate symptoms among those so labeled, so the pretense of finding the “missing genes” for their “gene illusion” per Dr. Jay Joseph is totally bogus ideology and not science to justify the greed and theft of all global resources by the current robber barons or 1%.

    If you think about it, how could they possibly say that some are more prone to trauma since some people don’t get it when exposed to the exact same experience when no unique individual person could possibly be exposed to the exact same experience(s) past or present as another individual, so this claim is just a way to destroy the credibility of PTSD or the only DSM diagnosis that didn’t use to blame the victims for their symptoms from combat, abuse, rape in wars, homes, work places, society and other war fronts where people have “normal responses to abnormal events.” That’s because war veterans and abuse/rape survivors under the leadership of trauma experts like Dr. Judith Herman, author of the classic, Trauma and Recovery, helped fight the battle to include PTSD in the DSM with Dr. Herman insisting that Complex PTSD should be added for long term traumatic exposure.

    Finally, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. was/is not a psychiatrist, but rather a psychologist. She discovered EMDR when walking through a park one day and found it helped her with her own stressful memories per the following web site.
    As you know, EMDR is a noninvasive therapy with no drugs, lobotomy, shock or other brain damaging treatments. And from what you say, EMDR does not wipe out important memories that may be crucial for one’s survival to avoid repetition, but rather, reduces their emotional impact and distress.

    For all the reasons I’ve cited here and many more for anyone who knows the history of biopsychiatry even from just reading Bob Whitaker’s books, it is little wonder the author of this article questioned the ethics of such a goal of wiping out one’s memories after researching it with various psychiatrists.

    I hope you don’t see this as a criticism, but rather, my concern that a very important survivor like you who is well aware of the problems with psychiatry does not get misled about psychiatry’s latest brain disabling “treatments.”

    Caveat Emptor!

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  3. Well, my doctors tried to alter my memory with massive drugs cocktails to cover up a “bad fix” on a broken bone and the medical evidence of the sexual abuse of my child. Unfortunately for those doctors, some decent nurses handed over my family’s medical records. And the truth is that defaming a person with a serious “mental illnesses” and tranquilizing people does not cure a “bad fix” on a broken bone, nor does it cure a mother of her concerns of child abuse, but the psychiatric drugs do cause the symptoms of the serious psychiatric “mental illnesses” and make healthy people ungodly sick.

    And psychiatric stigmatization does discredit the person, thus allowing doctors to proactively prevent a non-existant, but potentially legitimate, malpractice suit. And the ELCA synod offices collude to cover up sexual abuse of children when pastors are involved in the child abuse cover ups. And it is possible that covering up sexual abuse of small children in this manner resulted in my ex-pastor’s local high school having the highest suicide rate in the nation during the time my child was in high school.

    I think rather than doctors trying to alter people’s memories to cover up easily recognized iatrogenesis and child abuse, the doctors need to learn what the function of their malpractice insurance is, and we should arrest and prosecute even the wealthy or well connected child molesters, too. I’m quite certain medical attempts to alter my memory were unethical, and allowed some child molesters to stay on the streets harming more and more children.

    I do hope some day the psychiatric practitioners, and mainstream religions, will get out of the business of covering up the sexual abuse of small children some day.

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  4. Truth is that memory in general is not only leaky but also misleading – people remember things that never happened and the memories change every time you recall them. But adding drugs and using psychological tricks to affect people’s memories is unethical.

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