Thursday, 23 October 2008


“We need not destroy the past. It is gone.” - John Cage

Oblivion is the word of the day today.

oblivion |əˈblivēən| noun
1 The state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening: They drank themselves into oblivion.
• The state of being forgotten, esp. by the public: His name will fade into oblivion.
figurative Extinction: Only our armed forces stood between us and oblivion.
2 historical Law Amnesty or pardon.
ORIGIN late Middle English : via Old French from Latin oblivio(n-), from oblivisci ‘forget.’

A news item today reports that neurobiologist researchers at the Brain and Behaviour Discovery Institute at the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine claim to have selectively erased memories from mice in the laboratory.

Our memory works in four stages: Acquisition, consolidation, storage and retrieval. Earlier research identified that different chemicals help nerve cells in our brain deal with these four processes. Communication between brain cells, connections between neurons and the way that different chemicals interact with receptor molecules on the surface of brain cells determine what we learn, how we store it and how easily retrievable it is.

The research team at the Medical College of Georgia is headed by Joe Tsien, who together with his team found a way to quickly manipulate the activity of a memory molecule, a protein called αCaMKII. This plays a key role in brain cell communication. The researchers found that as they changed the levels of this protein in the brain, they could manipulate the level of recall of a stimulation, of a memory.

They applied electric shocks to mice and this stimulated a memory in them, which associated the electric shock with a certain place in their cages. The mice then avoided that place. By manipulating the levels of αCaMKII in the mice’s brain, the memory was erased and the mice no longer avoided the cage part where they had received the electric shock. Other experiments confirmed the selective loss of memory.

The logic of this research is that eventually its results could be applied to humans. Goodbye to phobias and painful memories, no more anguish over broken relationships, post-traumatic stress syndrome no longer a problem. In fact it could be a wonderful dream come true! Think of it, eternal bliss… Whatever hurts us and causes us pain erased away. Happiness on tap. Bliss pills, joy injections! Shades of the Aldous Huxley book “Brave New World” and its mind-numbing “soma”. A sad reflection of the 2004 Michael Gondry film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

What are we turning into, we humans? On the one hand we dread Alzheimer’s disease and the devastation it causes by robbing us of memory, and on the other hand we look to find these magic drugs that promise us oblivion and a “safe” erasure of our “bad” memories. We wish to live an existence that is free of all pain, a life packed in cotton wool, where our every experience is a cushioned, pleasant one. We want nothing but pleasure, joy, happiness, bliss, contentment, ecstasy, perfection. We cannot stand a challenge, buckle under stress and strain, succumb to depression over trifles, become demented because of experiences that caused us distress. Our tolerance levels are decreasing and we are more likely to fly off the handle over irritating matters than something of truly mind-shattering proportions.

Here is the perfect solution! Dr Tsien’s wonderful “happy pills”. We ask someone to think of an unpleasant memory, we administer the drug and whiz, bang, kazam, blowie! We “cure” them. The “patients” become a wonderful vegetable, as happy as a pumpkin basking in the sunshine of a safely guarded garden. The mind police has patrolled brains, eliminated the “bad guys” of the memory store and has established a wonderful new existence for the “patient”. Think of it, there would be no more “bad jobs” – you go and do what you have to do, take your “happy pills” as soon as you finish working and zap! Memory erased! Think of how cheerfully you would go back to work in the morning!

You could become a very efficient killer. But then, zap! All memory erased! You could be abducted, degraded, made to do whatever your captors wanted. They then inject you with a little “happy drug”, memories erased! No problem! You could be grieving for a loved one, you could be suffering and hurting and crying and living a miserable life – “happy pills” to the rescue. You take the pill and forget that person ever existed! Problem solved – or is it?

My memories define who I am. Both good and bad. The pain of experience moulds the shape of my conscience. The anguish that painful memories cause me is only there because beneath the anguish lies the pleasure of the experience that pre-existed or co-existed with the pain. Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure. Good memories balance the bad. Good memories are no longer “good” if we have nothing to compare to them It is not the lot of a human to be perpetually happy. Happiness non-stop is the ultimate of boredoms. As Wendell Berry says: “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

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