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Rewriting my Autobiography: Me, Myself, and (possibly) a Different ‘I’

posted by:Cynthia Aoki // 11:59 PM // October 16, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX

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I’ve always wanted to write my own autobiography. Maybe it’s narcissistic, but I thought it would be a good chance for me to think back, reflect, introspect, and remember both the good and bad things that happened to me throughout my life. I could then maybe figure out what went right, and in some cases, what went horribly wrong. But I told myself that I would save this personal task until I was older and also until I had enough stories and experiences to share and write about. Otherwise, if I wrote my autobiography today, it would be a story about a girl named Cynthia, who went to school, who then decided to go to more school.

I then came across McAdams’ “Life Story Theory” of identity [1] and realized that I didn’t have to wait until I was old and experienced to write my autobiography. I was already in the midst of writing one and in fact, I had been writing and contributing to this autobiography my whole life. According to McAdams, the individual is the primary author of his or her autobiographical narratives and the individual’s memories link together the past, the present, and the future in order to provide a sense of identity and also to provide a sense of purpose for one’s thoughts and behaviours.

This means that all the memories that I formed (both consciously and unconsciously) have helped to provide me with my sense of identity and that I’m continuously evaluating my experiences and integrating them into the larger narrative of my life.

But what would happen if I experienced something so horrifically terrible that I didn’t want it to form part of my life story. Would I have the option of ensuring that I no longer remember this event and that the memory of the event no longer forms part of my autobiography? If so, and I can start actively meddling with my autobiography, would this change who I am?

Memory and Drugs

Because of the importance of memory and its role in defining one’s identity, scientists in the realm of psychology, neurology, and neuroscience have been investigating methods of enhancing or preserving different types of memory. [2]

More recently, scientists have started to focus on developing pharmacological agents that inhibit or dampen the strength of memory formation and recall. These memory dampening agents are currently being investigated for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD and Autobiographical Memories

PTSD is a psychiatric anxiety disorder that can develop in response to traumatic experiences. [3] One hallmark characteristic of this disorder is the alternation between re-experiencing and avoiding trauma-related memories. In some cases, the disorder can be so debilitating that the individual can no longer function in society due to the involuntary and continuous recall of the horrific event.

Currently, researchers are investigating the interaction between autobiographical memories and PTSD. According to Bernsten (2001), traumatic memories are important in that they become reference points to other experiences in one’s autobiographical memory database. More specifically, traumatic memories become significant landmarks, which represent a major threat that is perceived by individuals with PTSD. [4]

By inhibiting the formation of certain autobiographical memories with the use of these memory dampening agents, the potential formation of these important landmarks may be circumvented.

Pharmaceutical Forgetting

Research has shown in both animal and human studies that emotionally arousing experiences are better remembered than those that are emotionally neutral. [5] Arousal is dictated by the level of adrenaline in the body; a higher level of adrenaline results in increased arousal, and therefore, stronger memory formation. Propranolol, which is already being prescribed for the treatment of hypertension, is used to block the effects of adrenaline. Scientists hypothesize that propranolol could help to dampen the recall of traumatic experiences by dampening arousal. Propranolol is currently being tested in multi-centre clinical trials for the treatment of PTSD.

More interestingly, researchers have recently shown that propranolol can also blunt previously formed memories in humans. [6] In a double blind, randomized study, persons with chronic PTSD were asked to recall their traumatic experiences. The mere recall of these previously experienced traumatic events caused adrenaline to be released and resulted in increased arousal. Upon experiencing arousal, half of the participants were administered propranolol; the other half were administered a placebo. Results showed that propranolol retroactively blunted the recall of previously formed traumatic memories.

Once approved for the treatment of PTSD, what would be the legal implications of using these agents in society?

Legal Issues

Propranolol is known as a “beta-blocker” and was developed in the 1950s and has been prescribed for the treatment of hypertension since the 1970s. In both volunteer studies [7] and clinical trials [8] the use of beta blockers was found to impair memory recall. Interestingly, a similar dose (120 mg-160mg/day) is being prescribed for both the treatment of hypertension and for the treatment of memory dampening. [9] Results from these experiments suggest that individuals who are prescribed propranolol for the treatment of hypertension may be subject to memory impairment; perhaps without their knowledge or consent. Of concern to the legal system is that the reliability and accuracy of the testimonies given by these individuals taking propranolol will be called into question. When deliberating future cases, it will be important for Canadian courts to be mindful of the potential effects that propranolol and similar drugs could have on a witness’s testimony.

Another legal issue arising from the use of these agents is the extent of informed consent that would be required when prescribing these memory dampening drugs. After experiencing a traumatic event, individuals will likely be rushed to the emergency room in order to be treated for both mental and physical distress. Upon reaching the emergency room, a tending physician may recommend the treatment of propranolol in order to help minimize the chances of developing PTSD in the future. Despite being informed of the potential risks and uncertainties associated with these agents, it is questionable whether individuals taking these drugs would be in a legitimate position to give their informed consent because 1) their decision making skills would be significantly compromised as they are in times of distress [10], and 2) they would not know the potential role these dampened memories would have played in their future lives and identities.

Some Final Thoughts

Currently, memory dampening agents are not available to the general public. The quickly advancing field of neuroscience, however, may be able to provide new, more specific, and safer agents to help dampen the painful memories associated with traumatic events. In the near future, some of these newer technologies could be potent enough to allow for memory deletion to occur. Recently, the drug, U0126 (not yet available in humans), was able to selectively delete a particular fear-induced memory in rats. [11] Perhaps these memory deleting agents will become available for use in humans.

In conclusion, it will be necessary for the courts and the government to be informed of all of these new pharmacological developments so that they will be in a legitimate position to weigh both the legal and social implications of using these interventions in the future.

Some Final Final Thoughts

By the time I get around to writing an autobiography, I could have gone through some experiences that may have tempted me to take one of these memory dampening agents and artificially blunt some of my memories.
Maybe it’s just me, but if I do decide to write an autobiography, I want to be able to look back and remember both the good and bad times; the times I’ve laughed and sobbed. I want to be confident that the memories I’m recalling and writing about are genuine and that my memories aren’t pharmaceutically modified in any way, shape, or form.

[1] D.P. McAdams, “The Psychology of Life Stories” (2001) 5:2 Review of General Psychology 100-122
[2] Farah, M. J., Illes, J., Cook-Deegan, R., Gardner, H., Kandel, E., King, P., Parens, E., Sahakian, B., & Wolpe, P. R. (2004). Neurocognitive enhancement: what can we do and what should we do? Nat Rev Neurosci, 5(5), 421-425
[3] Vasterling, J. J., Brewin, C. R. (2005). Neuropsychology of PTSD. New York: Guilford Press.
[4] Bernsten, D., Willert, M., Rubin, D.C. (2005). Splintered memories or vivid landmarks? Qualities and organization of traumatic memories with and without PTSD. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 675-693.
[5] McGaugh, J. L. (2006). Make mild moments memorable: add a little arousal. Trends Cogn Sci, 10(8),
345-347.
[6] Brunet, A., Orr, S. P., Tremblay, J., Robertson, K., Nader, K., & Pitman, R. K. (2007). Effect of post-retrieval
propranolol on psychophysiologic responding during subsequent script-driven traumatic imagery in post-traumatic
stress disorder. J Psychiatr Res. (in press).
[7] Frcka, G., & Lader, M. (1988). Psychotropic effects of repeated doses of enalapril, propranolol and
atenolol in normal subjects. Br J Clin Pharmacol, 25(1), 67-73.
[8] Blumenthal, J. A., Madden, D. J., Krantz, D. S., Light, K. C., McKee, D. C., Ekelund, L. G., & Simon, J.
(1988). Short-term behavioral effects of beta-adrenergic medications in men with mild hypertension. Clin
Pharmacol Ther
, 43(4), 429-435.
[9] Pitman, R. K., Sanders, K. M., Zusman, R. M., Healy, A. R., Cheema, F., Lasko, N. B., Cahill, L., & Orr, S. P.
(2002). Pilot study of secondary prevention of posttraumatic stress disorder with propranolol. Biol Psychiatry, 51(2), 189-192.
[10] Hammond, K. R. (2000). Judgments under stress. New York: Oxford University Press.
[11] Doyere, V., Debiec, J., Monfils, M. H., Schafe, G. E., & LeDoux, J. E. (2007). Synapse-specific reconsolidation
of distinct fear memories in the lateral amygdala. Nat Neurosci, 10(4), 414-416.

Comments

i agree with you...no matter how painful...i'd want to remember everything too. according to freud (not that i give him so much credit), repressing such memories may cause more hysteria.

Posted by: Eileen at October 18, 2007 09:24 PM

This is a fascinating subject. The legal implications of the use of memory altering drugs will become very important in the future, once these drugs will be available.

I could see how these drugs may be useful in certain cases such as post-traumatic stress disorder, but such drugs should be tightly regulated.

Posted by: Ingrid George at October 26, 2007 11:50 AM

totally pop culture moment: did you see Private Practice this week? Because a patient asked for "that drug that makes you not remember things"...and thanks to this piece and your Revealed I presentation, i could confidently explain to my partner how the process works...

Posted by: feisty_jenn at October 30, 2007 11:35 PM

Hysteria cannot be a good thing!

Posted by: Cynthia at October 31, 2007 09:20 PM

Very interesting research topic! I am looking forward to
reading your elaborated paper. One thought after reading this.
Considering the social nature of identity, memory-killer (like
pain-killer) can create a gap between what I think who I am and what
others think who I am. Then, who can really define who I am?

Posted by: Miwa at October 31, 2007 09:26 PM

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