Neuroscience of Memory Erasure: The Ethics of Mindswipe


One of main themes I’ve been working with in my near future novel is with the ethical dilemmas of memory erasure, or what I’ll term “mindwipe”. As a science fiction motif this has been around for ages. But we starting to see the edges of it entering actual scientific regions of knowledge and testability. Not only that but the notion of neural implants, and transplanted or false memories, etc. All these technologies come with a price as they always have. They can be used for good or ill. War or peace. That’s the dilemma.

In Neurotechnology in National Security and Defense: Practical Considerations, Neuroethical Concerns discusses the use of neurotechnologies in military and intelligence operations training, acquisition of neurobiological and cognitive data for intelligence and security, military medical operations, warfighter performance augmentation, and weaponization of neuroscience and neurotechnology.

In Neuroscience and the Future of Chemical-Biological Weapons the authors argue there is a century-long history of the development of novel neuroweapons, which is based on civil research and a vast, ongoing increase in research funding. These developments underpin an attempt to produce a mechanistic understanding of brain functions, which risk being subjected to misuse in the future. This study does not propose that this benignly-intended work be reined in, nor suggest that neuroscientists bear the sole responsibility for preventing the misuse of their work. However, they remain inextricably involved and should, one could argue, assume a certain level of accountability.

Back in 2006 Moreno in Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense brought forward a thesis that From neuropharmacology to neural imaging to brain-machine interface devices that relay images and sounds between human brains and machines, Moreno shows how national security entities seek to harness the human nervous system in a multitude of ways as a potent weapon against the enemy soldier. Moreno charts such projects as monkeys moving robotic arms with their minds, technology to read the brain’s thought patterns at a distance, the development of “anti-sleep” drugs to enhance soldiers’ battle performance and others to dampen their emotional reactions to the violence, and advances that could open the door to “neuroweapons”—virus-transported molecules to addle the brain.

In Neurotechnology: Premises, Potential, and Problems the author discuses how the emerging technologies also provide a means to assess and manipulate human consciousness, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors, bringing with them the potential to transform society.

uses in science fiction

The 1952 short story Paycheck by Philip K. Dick, in which an engineer, who has been working on a top-secret project after which his memory is wiped, discovers that he has not received any payments, but a collection of seemingly random items, and that the secret police is after him. It was made into a film in 2003.

Alfred Bester‘s 1953 novel The Demolished Man; the technique is labeled “Demolition” there. There are many more that explored this in classic and current SF. As Sharon Packer in Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films asks us: Now that neuroscience is the reigning paradigm in psychiatric theory and practice, do neuroscience tropes substitute for psychoanalytic motifs that predominated in the mid-20th century? Or is neuroscience–and the biology of the brain–applicable only to SF film? Another intriguing–yet unanswered–question: why is it that classic psychotic symptoms (such as thought-insertion or thought-broadcasting) make for such compelling SF (and cyberpunk) plots? How is it that some authors, such as Philip K. Dick, can turn their drug-induced paranoid delusions into novels that become cult movies (such as Blade Runner or Total Recall)–while others who suffer from similar symptoms simply suffer?  If we look at the rise of cyberpunk and the influence of author William Gibson, we find fascinating crossovers with advances in computers and shifts in approaches to neuroscience, both in film and in real life. Yet we can uncover proto-neuroscience themes in 19th century literature by Shelley, Wells, and Stevenson. Equally interestingly, we find explanations for such questions in a 1919 psychoanalytic paper by Viktor Tausk (“On the Origins of the Influencing Machine”), written in the same year as Caligari!. Appropriately, both past and future converge in SF.

Of course I’ve written on Scott Bakker’s Neuropath in Neuropath: Further thoughts on R. Scott Bakker where he fictionalizes and extends his Blind Brain Theory.

memory extinction and erasure

In a study Memory Erasure, Enhanced Extinction and Disrupted Reconsolidation by Segev Barak and Sami Ben Hamida dealing with the work of  Graham and Richardson (2011) in The Journal of Neuroscience they describe the use fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF2), which regulates neural development, regenerative plasticity, and neurogenesis (Unsicker et al., 1991), enhances extinction and disrupts reinstatement and renewal of the conditioned response in young rats when administered before or after extinction training.

Suppression of behaviors driven by unwanted memories can potentially be used as a treatment strategy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders in which maladaptive behaviors may stem from the retrieval of fearful memories. Such retrieval can occur following exposure to a cue previously associated with a fearful event. Although a desirable treatment outcome would be to break the association between the cue and the fearful event, a complete unlearning is seldom observed, and therefore the fear response tends to relapse. In animal studies, associative fear memory is typically acquired in a Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm, in which a neutral conditioned stimulus (CS), such as a tone, is paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US), such as a foot-shock, resulting in a conditioned fear response to the CS. The most widely used strategy to suppress behaviors driven by fear memories is extinction training, in which repeated presentations of the CS in the absence of the US result in a reduction in the conditioned fear response.

In a further study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, Graham and Richardson (2011) further expands this line of research, showing that FGF2 facilitates extinction of fear memories in adult rats by acting in the basolateral amygdala (BLA). More specifically, the authors show that rats with FGF2 infused into the BLA immediately after extinction training exhibit less freezing to the presentation of the conditioned stimulus (CS) compared with vehicle controls and to FGF2-treated rats that did not receive extinction training. The authors provide further evidence that FGF2 is a powerful extinction enhancer by showing that four times the amount of extinction training was required for control rats to exhibit levels of performance as low as those induced by postextinction FGF2 treatment. Furthermore, the authors found that FGF2 infusion into the BLA after extinction attenuated the renewal of fear response when the rats were tested in the original context. Finally, US (shock)-induced reinstatement of the conditioned fear response was abolished by FGF2 treatment. Together, these findings suggest that FGF2 activation in the BLA not only enhances extinction of fear response, but also prevents its relapse, and therefore may provide an ideal therapeutic strategy for anxiety disorders.

But what if such knowledge is used for nefarious purposes? This is where the dilemma comes in. What if either corporate or government agencies began to use such methods to effect change either in population groups, enemies, or warfare scenarios? Going, going, gone: the where and why of memory erasure Jee Hyun Kim says the notion of total extinction does not cause erasure – rather it is a new learning that opposes the original learning. In animals and humans, changing the environment from the one in which extinction has been shown to bring back the original fear or addiction behaviour. This explains why an addict can do well in a rehab but relapse as soon as he/she is returned to the real world. But as she and her colleagues showed that when extinction is performed in juvenile rats, changing the environment or giving reminder fear cues does not bring back the fear. Fear is gone, in other words, for good: extinction is erasure in juvenile rats. She goes on:

Maybe one day you will be able to erase memories of an ex-lover like Joel and Clementine in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dr Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory also may finally wipe his memory of Ben Affleck as Daredevil.

I would like to erase my own memories of the past wrongdoings so I can feel better about myself. But it will probably make me a worse person. Whether memory erasure is ethical or not is outside my scope.

Interestingly, a study published in Science last year showed that opioid injected into the spine, not the brain, erased memory trace of previous electrical stimulation present in the spine.

This made me think that perhaps to achieve memory erasure we need to go beyond the brain.

Now if they are able to do this to “fear” related PTSD etc. what might other more nefarious organizations do with other aspects of this biochemical and neuroscientific knowledge? What if they were able to inject someone’s spine erasing all memory, while adding in new ones through either advance nanotech, neurotech, or any other advance scientific method or pharmaceutical drug, etc.?

As she reminds us the ethical implications underpin the selective removal of memories. In the case of alleviating traumatic memories in PTSD or reducing drug craving it has great benefits, but what if we could simply forget a relationship that ended badly? Our memories – good or bad – form parts of our identities and simply removing aspects of our character may have serious consequences.

memory transplanting

Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, envisions a day in the not too distant future when a patient with severe memory loss can get help from an electronic implant. In people whose brains have suffered damage from Alzheimer’s, stroke, or injury, disrupted neuronal networks often prevent long-term memories from forming. For more than two decades, Berger has designed silicon chips to mimic the signal processing that those neurons do when they’re functioning properly—the work that allows us to recall experiences and knowledge for more than a minute. Ultimately, Berger wants to restore the ability to create long-term memories by implanting chips like these in the brain.

As Jon Cogen on Berger and his team shows, they took a leap forward by trying neuro-implants in live rats, showing that a computer could in fact serve as an artificial component of the hippocampus. They began by training the animals to push one of two levers to receive a treat, recording the series of pulses in the hippocampus as they chose the correct one. Using those data, Berger and his team modeled the way the signals were transformed as the lesson was converted into a long-term memory, and they captured the code believed to represent the memory itself. They proved that their device could generate this long-term memory code from input signals recorded in rats’ brains while they learned the task. Then they gave the rats a drug that interfered with their ability to form long-term memories, causing them to forget which lever produced the treat. When the researchers pulsed the drugged rats’ brains with the code, the animals were again able to choose the right lever.

Within the next two years, Berger and his colleagues hope to implant an actual memory prosthesis in animals. They also want to show that their hippocampal chips can form long-term memories in many different behavioral situations. These chips, after all, rely on mathematical equations derived from the researchers’ own experiments. It could be that the researchers were simply figuring out the codes associated with those specific tasks. What if these codes are not generalizable, and different inputs are processed in various ways? In other words, it is possible that they haven’t cracked the code but have merely deciphered a few simple messages.

Of course like everything else such scientific research is only at the beginning stages but if one extrapolates it exponentially into a near future scenario where might this lead if put into the wrong hands? Whether such science will attain this effectiveness in another matter, but the pathway suggests there are feasible outcomes.

The Guardian reported back in 2013 that scientists have implanted a false memory in the brains of mice in an experiment that they hope will shed light on the well-documented phenomenon whereby people “remember” events or experiences that have never happened. Going on:

In order to study how these false memories might form in the human brain, Susumu Tonegawa, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, and his team encoded memories in the brains of mice by manipulating individual neurons. He described the results of the study in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Memories of experiences we have had are made from several elements including records of objects, space and time. These records, called engrams, are encoded in physical and chemical changes in brain cells and the connections between them. According to Tonegawa, both false and genuine memories seem to rely on the same brain mechanisms.

“Our study showed that the false memory and the genuine memory are based on very similar, almost identical, brain mechanisms. It is difficult for the false memory bearer to distinguish between them. We hope our future findings along this line will further alert legislatures and legal experts how unreliable memory can be.”

“Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy,” said Steve Ramirez, a colleague of Tonegawa’s at MIT.

“Are there multiple conditions that lead to the formation of false memories? Can false memories for both pleasurable and aversive events be artificially created? What about false memories for more than just contexts – false memories for objects, food or other mice? These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab.”

So one might not be amiss in extrapolating from current research a science fiction scenario where let’s say a Leader of a Nation, Corporation, etc. was mindwiped, installed with new false memories and brought to enact new subjectivations in personality and policy, etc. One could also imagine governments using such systems on eugenics type projects to transform its populace into docile sheep or slaves of the system, etc. Lots of dystopian scenarios …

The ethical dimensions are explored in Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives in Neuroethics a group of essays explores important developments in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and addresses the philosophical, ethical, and social issues and problems that such advancements generate. It examines three core questions. First, what is the scope and direction of neuroscientific inquiry? Second, how has progress to date affected scientific and philosophical ideas, and finally, what ethical issues and problems does this progress and knowledge incur, both now and in the future?

More dubious accounts…

Below I outline a few more dubious book more for use in fiction. Most of this cannot be verified.

Robert Duncan in his book detailing the CIA’s interest and use of neuroscience and technology has crossed certain barriers of ethics, Project: Soul Catcher: Secrets of Cyber and Cybernetic Warfare. As one reader commented “some of the most intrusive surveillance and behavioral modification technologies ever created. His latest work is a must read for everyone concerned with the future of human rights in the both the United States and abroad. His detailed description of the modalities used for hacking the human mind are both accurate and troublesome. Countless thousands have seen their lives ruined in the non-consensual experimentation phase regarding this technology.”

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