Last Saturday afternoon, in a back room at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park, roughly 50 people sat down to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry's 2004 film about Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), an unhappy couple who, independent of one another, seek to have memories of their relationship erased. The film was the concluding event for "Neuroethics Week 2007," a six-day series of panels organized by the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, a collaborative comprising San Diego's three biggest universities.
The film requires a couple of viewings-or more-to fully grasp, but even with one viewing, a central ethical dilemma is clear, and UCSD philosophy professor Mary Devereaux posed that question to the audience at the film's conclusion: "Supposing we had a technology that actually could erase particular kinds of memories, what kind of response would we have?"
(Devereaux qualified her question: Assume, too, that the technology is perfect-unlike the flawed memory-erasing procedure depicted in the film.)
Before taking on Devereaux's question, though, the audience took issue with the film's suggestion that memories are neatly located in one part of the brain; some found it odd, too, that although the characters lost a portion of their memory, their personalities were unchanged. One audience member pointed to the example of a man whose personality changed completely after he lost his memory. A woman who experienced memory loss said friends have told her, "You're totally gone, but your essence is the same."
Bringing the focus back to ethics, somone asked whether a person who experiences a traumatic event is obligated to share his or her story-Holocaust survivors and their motto "never again" came to mind. "One of the liabilities of forgetting is that you just do the same thing again," one person mentioned.
"Who's to determine that it's better to have these memories gone than learn to come to terms with them?" another audience member pointed out.
Devereaux noted that though there might not be a machine that erases memories, "memory-dampening" drugs are being developed. "We're having more and more control over the ways in which we experience emotions and the functions of our brain."
So what about enhancing good memories, one man asked-"like that wonderful day at the beach?"
"That's why we move to San Diego," Devereux laughed. "Who needs drugs?"