Is there any tragic or traumatic memory that you wish you could erase? An untimely death of a friend? An accident that still gives you chills when you remember it? A gut-wrenching broken relationship?
Michael Gondry used this premise to write Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Joel (Jim Carrey) learns that his girlfriend of two years (Kate Winslet) has erased the memory of their relationship. He visits the same doctor to have the procedure done to him. During the process he decides he really does not want to forget her, and tries to hide his memories from the technicians conducting the neurological search-and-destroy mission.
The 2004 movie was only a few years ahead of the science. In 2005, the fear-factor gene was discovered. This led researchers at the Medical College of Georgia and Shanghai Institute of Brain Functional Genomics to conduct experiments on laboratory mice to see if the science fiction was possible. They discovered that a drug induced at a specified time could remove certain proteins from the brain’s fear center to eliminate selected memories from the mice.
Last month, the chair of the department of neuroscience at Hopkins School of Medicine, Richard Huganir, said that the discovery of the molecular process in the formation of memories “raises the possibility of manipulating those mechanisms with drugs to enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Some PTSD sufferers experience certain levels of healing from current behavioral therapy.
Debate surrounds the research. Kate Farinholt, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) questioned the ethics of the practice. “Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential. But completely deleting a memory, assuming it’s one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone’s life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences?”
Some recent films, like The Hurt Locker or the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, provide a better understanding of the kind of trauma military combatants suffer. These events can deeply scar people emotionally. Victims may be willing to take the risks incurred for relief.
Farinholt raises an important concern. Human memories are not usually isolated. Through layers of networks, they link with other memories, thoughts, beliefs, habits and personality formation. Even if the isolated memory could be erased, the consequences of that memory would not be reversed.
On a theological level, memories of bad events seem necessary for a fuller understanding of the grace of God. By God’s grace, one who believes in Jesus Christ is transformed into a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). Walking in this grace, the new person in Christ participates in sanctification, the process of growing in relationship with Christ and in the habits of the new life in Christ. God’s grace is transformative.
Without memories of bad events, a believer would not likely seek the grace of God to discover the changes needed from those bad events, changes in perspective, emotions, beliefs and habits. After accepting God’s grace in Christ, the change in the apostle Paul’s life was dramatic, but the memory of his personal assault on the early followers of Jesus haunted him (Acts 26:9-10). Considering himself to be the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) drove him to God for grace and forgiveness.
But these bad memories were self-induced. What about the memories of the pain that others inflicted on someone through abuse or neglect? Can these be redemptive? These memories often produce emotional damage that cripples people. How could these memories benefit?
The New Testament writers agreed that suffering could yield great benefit. Paul said that tribulation could bring perseverance, character, hope and a greater awareness of God’s love (Romans 5:3-5). James urged believers to rejoice in suffering, because it could result in endurance, which is necessary for maturity (James 1:2-4).
These products of suffering depend upon a response of faith in God’s wisdom, love, sovereignty and grace. For some, the journey of acquiring these benefits is long and difficult, but many will attest that the joy of experiencing God’s grace along the way far outweighs the suffering. Deleting those memories would abort that journey of discovery.
Science continues to push the edges of ethical and theological restraint. A shallow or truncated view of human nature can result in dehumanizing people in the name of compassion. The so-called eternal sunshine may actually be the darkness of a missed opportunity to find true light.