Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Amnesia Drug

by Nancy Martin

Do you have a memory you'd like to erase? Researchers at Montreal's Harvard and McGill University have come up with a drug that helps people forget.

No, it's not for helping you forget your first husband. Or your mother-in-law's phone number. Or the time my--er--your friend tied your brassiere to the antenna of her car and drove all over town including the pizza shop with your 36-B waving in the wind. No, Proplanonol is actually being tested on rape victims and people who suffer from serious post-traumatic stress. And it significantly reduces the stress these people experience daily.

Sounds to me as if it's the kind of shortcut our government will be eager to take when treating returning soldiers who have combat-related stress disorder. But that's another kind of blog, isn't it?

The article about this drug got me thinking. Did I have any memories I'd like to forget?

I guess I've lived a sheltered life, because I couldn't think of one. Neither could my husband. (But then, he was raised a Christian Scientist, which I think is the definition of sheltered life.) For a writer, of course, bad memories are actually a good thing.--They help us better decide how our characters act and feel. If we came upon a gruesome crime scene, we might be horrified for ten seconds, but then we'd reach for the notebook and pen to record how we feel. We want to digest every nuance for later use on the page.

Just because I don't have memories I want to be rid of doesn't mean I can't imagine how someone else might feel about a truly terrible experience, though. "I feel your pain," is a motto for a lot of writers.

Here's a website that makes me think about people and their emotional experiences. I think some of them could use this new drug. But I like the site because it reminds me what books need to be full of--emotions in turmoil.

I once had a conversation with an editor who had just become an agent. We were talking about the elements most lacking in the books she rejected. Her number one pick? The lack of drama.

I think she meant both the drama of a moment that a writer can build as well as the emotional drama the writer must first embrace, then articulate.

So the richer my emotional life as a writer, the better. But it's a fine line sometimes between turmoil you can sublimate into your work and turmoil you can't handle. I've taken anti-depressants now and then, and I've spent time in therapy, too. Neither of those experiences was a picnic in the park. But all my experiences have become useful additions to my writerly toy box.

What about you? Would you erase a memory, if you could? Because it sounds as if it could actually happen now.

20 comments:

Tory said...

Deleting a memory sounds good at times, but I doubt I'd ever do it, even if the science of it were perfected. I'd wonder if the emotional conflict it reflects would just resurface somewhere else. And I've found once you work through an issue, you can see the memories in a new light, and sometimes they give you a whole new perspective.

I'd rather use non-prescription means to deal with my "bad memories."

My neighbor's cigarette smoke drifting into my windown early in the morning? Now that I'd like to erase!

Martha Reed said...

Interesting post! I've also heard about this new drug, and I wondered if I would take it, if offered. And yes, I agree that difficult experiences make us better writers - if we have the courage to dig into them and explore our emotional response. I wouldn't want to upset that, but there are some life experiences I wouldn't mind erasing: like the furnace dying mid-winter or when my truck broke down and dumped me in south Dallas at 1AM and I had to walk around for an hour in the rain to find help!

Gina said...

If you erase the memory, does it also erase the results of the experience?? I mean, it's easier to understand a fear of dogs if you remember being bitten as a child; if you just react with terror everytime you see a Pekinese without remembering the bite, won't you think you're nuts?

What about the rest of the memory? When you forget about the dog attack, do you also forget about how Grandma snatched you up and chased the dog away, and how protected you felt in her arms? How much of your sense of safety and trust grows out of Grandma's action? Do you lose that, too?

Just a few thoughts. I won't even mention the movie MEMENTO, in which a man's lack of memory allows him to be manipulated into committing murders.

And what if they discover later that we need to keep those bad memories after all. Can you get the memory back? Or, like an amputated limb, will it be gone forever, leaving you psychologically incomplete.

Lee Lofland said...

I find this interesting for more than one reason. The first being that my wife is the director of microbiology for a company that specializes in new drug development (anti-infectives).

The second reason is that I'm not so sure it's a good idea for us to be able to edit our memories.

I'm also amazed that, like aspirin can seek out and destroy a headache (how does it know to go to the head and not the feet), this drug can selectively erase only certain memories. How does it know which memories to delete?

Suppose the drug goes wacky and erases thoughts of your first kiss or the day your kids were born (I know, in the South that could be the same day).

Sigh...I miss the good old days when all you had to worry about was if Dick Van Dyke was going to fall down, or if Barney Fife was going to move to Raleigh and get a corner room at the YMCA.

My wife tells me I'm a bit old-fashioned, but this memory-drug thing is just too much like Frankenstein science to me. Next thing you know they'll be cloning things or sending people to the moon...

Nancy said...

Psychologically imcomplete! I like that phrase, Gina. And I wonder about the residual memories,too.

Although I can see wanting to erase combat experiences.

I forgot to mention what I believe is the human body's natural ability to forget: Childbirth. I swear, there must be a hormone that erases the worst of that experience from the minds of most women. Otherwise, the population would be significantly smaller. But then, I had an 11 pound baby . . . .

Nancy said...

Lee! You're a curmudgeon!

Going to Thrillerbest by any chance?

Annette said...

This all reminds me of that movie from a few years back, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. If you haven't seen it, go rent it.

I don't want to wipe out my memories, although I've found myself thinking lately, that I wouldn't mind finding a time machine to plop me back in 1992. But then I think of all my friends, like you all, that I've met since then, so that doesn't work either.

I guess I'll keep all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I seem to be on a movie kick this morning...

Annette said...

And, Lee, I think aspirin DOES go to your feet, too, but since they didn't hurt to begin with, you never realized it.

Joyce said...

I don't like the idea of this drug either. ALL our memories make us who we are. Bad memories make the good ones all that much sweeter.

My younger son, Josh, is working in a research lab at Pitt this summer with one of his professors doing memory research. Something about MRIs and memory and how the brain "records" memory. He explained it to me several times, but I still don't get it.

Lee Lofland said...

And I thought I was the picture of happiness and bliss...bah, humbug to you, Nancy Martin. :)

No, I'm not going to be able to make it to Thrillerfest this year. My schedule is way too full. I'm speaking in Portland for the Willamette conference in a couple of weeks then immediately afterward I'm off to Columbus for that conference.

The rest of the year is pretty busy too. I have a conference in Myrtle Beach S.C., Forensic University in St. Louis, and Crime Bake in Ma. Hey, at Crime Bake I'll be appearing with your blog partner, Michele Martinez, and Lee Child in the mock trial of Jack Reacher. That should be a lot of fun!

Annette, I was kidding about the aspirin thing, BUT not about the feet. Ouch, they hurt too. I'm getting old!

By the way, I just received word that my children's book proposal was accepted this morning. Look out Dr. Seuss and move over Madonna! How's that go again...One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish...One cop, two cops, bank robbers stop...

Kathy said...

Hmmm. Selective Memory Eraser. Sounds like somthing for the laundry room, not the brain.

What if it accidentally hits the Birthday or Phone Number database? Or worse yet, the place where few people's names you DO remember are stored?

Too chancy.

Cool blog, Nancy and a great link - I like the Smart Girls/Pretty Girls one - that person should read more blogs!

Joyce said...

Lee, I want an autographed copy of that one!

Lee Lofland said...

Sure thing, Joyce. This one will be fun.

Nancy said...

Congrats, Lee! I can't wait to see you sitting in those little chairs in the children's aisle, reading aloud.

Cathy said...

Geez, I take a low dose of propranolol every day, so now I have a good excuse for forgetting. What was I saying?

Kristine said...

Nancy, if given the choice, I'd have to pass on this drug. Any drug that messes with your thought and memory processes has got to be dangerous. Plus, how will we as a society ever learn to cope with the negative and bad stuff in our lives if we can easily erase them? My bad memories have taught me more about myself than any of my good memories, and not just in regard to my writing career.

Congratulations, Lee!

Lee Lofland said...

Thanks, Kristine.

jody said...

Interesting subject, Nancy. It reminds me of the movie, Men In Black, with the 'flashy thing' that erased memories. We all have memories that are painful. Like holding my dad after the doctors took him off of life support, and telling him that it was okay to let go. Painful, yes - but would I give it up ? No.
For combat veterans and others with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, however, it could be a life saver. I have friends and family who have served (and are still stationed)in Iraq. My cousin's oldest son was in one of the first tank columns to reach Baghdad. They were under strict orders not to stop for any reason. Even when an Iraqi woman threw her infant in front of their convoy. That's one memory I would not want to keep.
On a *much* lighter note - do you think the drug would help Lee forget how I screwed up his CSI Don't Think So class in Pittsburg ?

Writer, Rejected said...

Wow! Provacative post. Some people spend lifetimes trying to retrieve memories they have lost. It's a complicated game, no? RE: Editor/agents, it's always something with them. Check out my attempt at humor regarding why books aren't taken at www.literaryrejectionsondisplay.blgospot.com Glad I found your blog. It's well-written and considered. Thanx.

Anonymous said...

intresting. ironic that your husband has no bad memories of being raised a christian scientist. i found my c.s. childhood, (in retrospect) a series of denouncements, medical neglect, mind fucking and zero validation.