What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

Why is memory this way? Why isn’t it content to hurt you once? Why must it remind you of all the times you’ve been hurt before?

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you have been asleep for a while.

Our hearts are given as hostage when we love. The kind of love doesn’t matter: children, friends, romance, and more. Our core is at risk when we treasure books and eyes fail, or music and hearing dims, or running and knees collapse.

Think of our loves as on loan from a magical library. This institution specifies no due date for the materials checked out.

Are we fools because the absence of a precise cutoff allows us to believe our possession is secure?

Perhaps someone already grabbed the object of our desire off the shelf. Will waiting help, hoping for the item to be returned?

You say rapture is yours? Then, suddenly, the library police snatch it away. No warning. No time to prepare. Maybe an accident robs you of your mobility or another love of a lover. No aid for this, no higher authority to whom you can appeal.

The officers provide only cruel compensation: a hole inside. The happiness of what remains begins to leak, the substance of life tunneling down the bottomless sink. Food doesn’t taste right, jokes don’t make you laugh, sleep gives no rest.

You climb in and reach for what is moving away. Or lack even the strength to lift you arm, open your hand, and try.

Oh, but shards of the remembrance cut, edges slow to depart.

Where is the repair shop when you need it, something to fill up the hole, smooth the jagged places? A replacement for “one of a kind” now gone? No second hand stores carry it, no reseller offers the missing part. A proprietor says they have something like it. You know they don’t.

What if you could simply forget you’d ever had the precious commodity, as if a surgeon removed an unwanted scar?

The top quote comes from Mem, by Bethany Morrow. The novel deals with some of the implications of memory erasure, also treated in the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Outside of fiction, scientists envision a possible future including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), brain implants, or other methods to treat PTSD by deleting disturbing memories.

The researchers make an assumption: the stinging, sorrowing, traumatic remembrances are distinct, limited, and not integrated with the rest of you. Not all troubling events fit into this tiny package, however.

Stop for a moment.

Would you sign up?

Many questions can be expected to arise if such a tool comes to the hospital nearest you. How would the doctor measure whether a memory is terrible enough and fenced-off enough to qualify for medical vanishing cream? Would the emotion disappear along with the recollection or might one experience the trauma without the reference to what caused it?

How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.

What might such experiential carve-outs do to our humanity? How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?

Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”*

If the technique were extended to matters of romantic heartbreak, would the wonder of love vanish too? Might our species turn reckless once assured that losses needn’t last past our next doctor appointment?

Remember, taking something away doesn’t add anything back. Would these scrubbed souls become like white boards without the written names and meanings of the people who were once our “everything?” Does spotlessness await or just mindless?

For now we must weather the bad luck and pack an umbrella. Perhaps go to a therapist or seek the drug dispensers, insurance approved or otherwise. We count on time to pass so we no longer count the time “since” and “after.”

I wish we were guaranteed a puddle remover for the rain and a hole closer for the drain. At least they tend to get smaller.

Gratitude for what abides offers consolation, though hard to summon with speed. New people, new tasks, new beauties beckon. Acceptance, too, is instrumental in healing, another job needy of practice and patience. Religion helps some find solace.

To me, the essential lesson is to live with urgency. Not stay up nights wondering when the librarian will demand the book back. Rather, to be exhausted by bedtime for having embraced the fullness and possibility of the sunlight. If, by evening, the tale of your life is claimed, the desk won’t be piled high with regret.

Your library card might appear battered by then. Look carefully, though, and recognize something else. Good use was made of your time and the invitation to enter a wondrous place called the globe. I mean the bounty offered there: books and relationships, work and sport, nature and laughter and fulfillment from striving to repair the world.

In a place where everything is borrowed and brief, Andrew Marvell’s centuries old advice, To His Coy Mistress, still applies:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.


The second image is Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg.

*Excerpt from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

14 thoughts on “What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

  1. gaylelillianablakely

    There is a new series on Amazon Prime called “Homecoming.” It might be worth a watch, though you would have to see the entire first season to make sense of it. Parts of your post reminded me of an episode or two. …Another great post, Dr. S. With regards to DID or dissociative fugues, I wonder if memories are so connected with identity that painfully shameful memories, especially those involving moral injuries, are subconsciously ignored, hidden, and/or forgotten, along with a part of our personality. I wonder. I would take a cure to this madness in a heartbeat, but not at the expense of losing the good parts of self.


    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Gayle. I wasn’t aware of the series you mention. I think you’ve raised an issue that argues against the use of such a method. What if a person were left without abusive memories to explain DID symptoms? I expect a proper use of such a treatment would not include those cases.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. gaylelillianablakely

    I wonder if we choose to become persona non grata to ourselves at times.


  3. “Our hearts are given as hostage when we love”.…so true and so beautifully put!

    Your title question is kind of the reverse of Garth Brook’s lyrics “I could have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance.”

    Is it worth erasing the pain, knowing it would also erase a love so deep that the pain of its loss is too hard to bear? The pain is real, that “hole inside” is real, but I would never wish away the love, be it for a person or a book or music. I think it would make life very empty and meaningless.

    I would not sign up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Brewdun. You show bravery in facing the question and answering it. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome argue against us when they ask why WE ask, “Why Me?” Their answer is pretty simple: all of us are human and this is the lot of human beings. The dilemma then becomes ours: how will we face the ups and downs of life, bad memories included. I’d not be the first, I think, to try the imagined erasure procedure. With enough data on how it works? Who knows? I can only say for sure that there are no memories waiting for eradication.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. gaylelillianablakely

    If a person were polyvictimized (past tense; experiencing PTSD) or currently living under traumatic conditions (and experiencing CTSD, or continuous traumatic stress disorder), and their bad memories were wiped, then their abilities to detect danger and defend themselves properly the next time may also be wiped as well. However, removing memories may not necessarily mean vulnerability to revictimization, but that would be interesting to test as well. However, if we apply evolutionary psychology, then wouldn’t memory removal make us less fit to defend ourselves in the future, even if our only defense is psychological and not physical? Age-related differences may play key roles in survival of trauma.


    • drgeraldstein

      All good points, Gayle. It might be useful to think of memory erasure as a kind of dramatic, technologically achieved form of dissociation, which certainly works to set aside a part of one’s experience in any given moment and make it harder to draw on important lessons, including signs of danger.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You pose an interesting question, Dr. Stein. I agree when you say:
    “How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.”

    We humans, it seems to me, are prone to merely addressing the symptoms and not the causes of human distress. For example: Instead of ending wars, we seek to erase the trauma.

    Rewriting our history is also an attempt at erasure. But, as you observe: “How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?” There will always be those among us who cannot afford to forget the past, example slavery and the Holocaust, lest it be repeated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Agreed, Rosaliene. And one might also consider one additional implication of what you describe: As we become removed from our communal history by the passage of time, we might become more prone to forget it or believe the same conditions (the previous conditions and the lessons they suggested) no longer apply. History is often described as cyclical. The stock market goes up and down, as an as example. And then there is the troubling finding that history departments in the major universities (elite universities excepted) have been suffering declining enrollment for about a decade. Many people consider history boring or irrelevant to the present moment (and the task of getting a job), which increases the chance they will be taken by surprise when the past becomes relevant with immediacy.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. “Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”* I have alluded to on your blog many times my difficult upbringing, and my therapist teaches me that as a result of the suffering I endured, I am a kind, warm, empathic woman who goes out of my way to extend kindness to others, which is a wonderful attribute. I have to remind myself of this, and he is helping me, when I am beating myself up by replaying old tapes that no longer pertain to my adult life. Wanting love from both parents who were mentally incapable of providing this to me properly has damaged me internally, but there has been a positive outcome, I guess. I do wonder how I would have been if I had the upbringing I wish I had. Would I still be kind and empathic? Or would I be a different person? I mourn for the person I could have been instead of an anxious, people pleaser.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course, we don’t know what we would have become if we’d lived in different times, been raised by different parents, gone to school A instead of school B; at least, not with certainty. I’d also like to think (as some philosophers emphasize) that we have choices to make about what to do with our lives, even when those circumstances tip us in one way or another. Thus, Nancy, I’d like to think you, too, had a choice to make about becoming a good, kind, empathic person and that this is to your credit. And we — all of us — are left to make the best we can of whatever fate hands us (good or bad), even now as we are challenged by new situations and new things. My hat is off to you for what you have done and what you will yet do.


      • You are a good man Dr. Stein, and you just reinforced what my own therapist has been teaching me, which pleases me, because it shows me what I already know, that I am lucky to have found my therapist and your blog. You both mirror each other.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Nancy.


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