The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation


This topic was discussed at the Council's October 2002 meeting. This background paper was prepared by staff solely to aid discussion, and does not represent the official views of the Council or of the United States Government.

Staff Background Paper

Remembering and Forgetting

The human fascination with memory-what it is, how it works, and how it might be manipulated-is an old one. But over the last few decades, the modern science of memory-combining the insights and discoveries of psychology, neurology, and neuroscience-has offered new possibilities and raised new kinds of questions. More specifically, the new memory research focuses on two sets of aspirations: The first, largely scientific and humanistic, is an effort to understand how human memory functions (physiologically and mechanically) and what memory is (existentially). The second aspiration, largely technological and medical, is to alter the workings of human memory-whether to cure memory diseases and failures like Alzheimer's or amnesia, to enhance normal memory function, or to change (by adding, blocking, or erasing) the actual content of one's memory. (See accompanying selections by McGaugh, Rose, Hall and Schacter.) As these powers increase-if they do in fact increase-we increasingly confront complex questions about how to use them. These questions will be best addressed in the context of the nature and functions of memory and its place in the economy of human life.

What, we must ask, is the human meaning of memory as an anthropological phenomenon? What does it mean to be the creature that both remembers and forgets, the being whose self-conscious identity exists largely or partly in the self's recollection of its own past, and the being who shares in different communities grounded in their own common memories? Why do we often forget that which we'd like to remember, and often remember that which we'd like to forget? Does an "image" or "scan" of an individual's brain at work-for example, while remembering the person she once loved-give us insights into what love itself (or other human experiences) really is (are)? Does blocking out or erasing unwanted memories fulfill our identity (by making us the person we wish to be) or compromise our identity (by severing us from the person, like it or not, that we are and were)?

These are, of course, large and difficult questions without simple answers. But they are the kinds of questions that we must ask as we consider how to handle our new powers over human memory (to improve, erase, remake, alter, cure and understand it) that our new science may set before us.

I. The Being Who Remembers and Forgets

Any reflections we can offer about the human meaning of remembering and forgetting are necessarily preliminary and limited, but the following observations can perhaps at least get us started:

  1. 1. It is worth noting that we cannot typically remember the first few months and even years of our existence, and so we exist, in a sense, only in the memories of others. (And yet, as we are often told, the first years of life are central to forming our identity.) At the same time, at the end of life and certainly after death, we become the beings that are remembered; again, like all things and events that have "passed," we exist only in the memory of others. These natural facts about the human lifecycle suggest a larger truth: that while we are the remembering beings and while memory is a personal experience or function, we depend on the memory of others. We are not fully autonomous; indeed, to alter our memory affects others-not just at the beginning and end of life, but throughout life. These facts of the lifecycle also suggest that human beings live in time-that is, within a finite period of time. We live before memory (as newborns), with memory (through life), and after memory (at death). Our finitude as mortal beings and time-bound beings shapes our experience of memory and what it means to remember; it makes memory possible and necessary, because that which we have now will one day be gone. (It also inspires ambitious and unlikely proposals, such as "downloading our brains" to make ourselves "immortal.")

  2. While we live in time, our memories are not simply or predominantly "organized" chronologically. We "acquire" new memories in time, but we organize and re-organize those memories in light of ideals, experiences, and longings that, in a sense, transcend time. The meaning of events-or at least the meaning we give to events-changes as we experience, understand, and remember new things. This suggests that the desire to alter memory now gambles with the (as yet) unrevealed significance of memory in the future.

  3. Our memories are our own because they consist of our real acting-in-the-world, not simply sensations or images of having done things that we have not in fact done. This is, indeed, the tragedy of amnesia-the loss of a "real" self, which would be no less a tragedy if the memories we had lost could be replaced with new, even "better" ones.

II. Nature of New Powers To Alter Memory

As we turn to consider the possible new powers to alter memory, the following distinction seems worth making:

  1. One kind of memory alteration would change the individual's capacity to do things in the future (such as remember phone numbers or dates). It would alter the "machinery" of remembering.

  2. A second kind of memory alteration would make it "as if" we had done things-or not done things-in the past. It would change the content of memory.

In light of this distinction, three kinds of "non-therapeutic" powers to alter memory seem worth considering-both because they are the most likely to occur given current research and because they raise difficult human and moral questions:

  1. The power to increase the capacity to retain information

  2. The power to increase the vividness of powerful or emotional or desirable memories

  3. The power to block or erase the formation or retention of painful or unwanted memories

III. Case Studies

In an effort to understand the significance of these different powers, it might be useful to consider three human experiences or activities in which memory alteration could be used: by a contestant in a spelling bee, by a victim of a heinous crime, or by a soldier in wartime.

  1. Spelling Bee: What if a drug existed that could improve our capacity, among other things, to remember words and their spelling? On the one hand, such an intervention in the workings of memory (like a vitamin) might increase the boundaries of human achievement, by expanding our command of the language. On the other hand, it might skew our intelligence to the memorization and recollection of words in ways that might impair our sense of how and why to use them. On the one hand, it might make those born with average or below average intelligence more equal to their naturally gifted peers. Or it might devalue our appreciation of excellence (the spelling bee champion) that arises not from the ingenious artifice of others (the memory pill makers) but from some mysterious combination of natural gift and self-exerted effort. Or it might exacerbate existing inequalities, by further enhancing the most intelligent at the expense of the least.

  2. Crime Victim: What if a drug existed that could block or erase the memory of being assaulted or raped if taken within 48 hours of the event? How does society as a whole and the victim as an individual balance the desire to ameliorate this painful memory with the desire for public justice that would require the victim's testimony and therefore the remembering of the thing she wishes to forget? More generally, are memories of suffering sometimes "good for us," even if it takes more than 48 hours to realize it? If not good for us, are such memories-fair or not, chosen by us or imposed on us-our "cross to bear"? Or are some memories so disordering of human life that erasing them should properly be understood as a form of (preventive) medicine, similar in its meaning to preventing or treating a physical ailment?

  3. The Soldier in Wartime: What if drugs existed that could either enhance or erase the soldier's memory in wartime? For example, what if a drug could make a soldier remember complex orders or map coordinates in an extreme situation of life or death? Does the judgment about whether to use such a drug depend on the goodness of the cause? Does it depend on the meaning a culture gives to warfare-e.g., as defeating an evil enemy whatever it takes, as preserving the greatest health and safety of warriors, or as (in a heroic culture) celebrating the native prowess of the self-reliant warrior? A different example: What if a drug existed that could erase the soldier's memory of killing, and thus the horror that comes with it?

IV. Conclusion

Perhaps it is misguided to imagine that we will have such overreaching powers of control over human memory. And yet, doing so forces us to consider more "everyday" modifications of memory-such as slowing down or reversing the forgetfulness of old age. We must see both the "fragility of memory," as Daniel Schacter puts it, and thus the ambiguity of altering its workings. We must consider the nature of such a desire (i.e., to reverse the forgetfulness of old age), and whether the desire itself always, or alone, justifies acting to fulfill it. Perhaps there is a hidden (or not so hidden) wisdom in forgetting that which we'd like to remember, or remembering that which we'd like to forget.

Moreover, the development of powers over the workings of memory for one purpose-perhaps laudable or justifiable-may open the door to other kinds of modifications that are more ambiguous, dangerous, or dehumanizing. For example, a memory-blocking agent, useful in the prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder, could also have devastating bio-terrorist uses. Observing these facts (the way one innovation leads to another; the dual-uses of memory-altering technology) does not settle the question of how or whether to proceed. It only challenges us to proceed wisely and with eyes open, so that we avoid the worst outcomes of our new bio-technical powers and realize the best. To meet this challenge means beginning not with the powers themselves, but with serious reflection and clear-sightedness about what it means to be the beings who remember and forget.

  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS