Plastic surgery for the brain?

Enhancing your body is so last season. Now neuroscientists are talking about enhancing our minds starting by erasing painful memories. Should you be worried?

If you’re free tonight and happen to be in North London you might want to pop along to Rewiring the Mind at The Wellcome Centre where neuroscientists Neil Burgess and Anders Sandberg and psychologist Emily Holmes will be discussing the possibilities and consequences of erasing painful memories.

Sandberg was discussing it this morning on the Today Programme along with philosopher A C Grayling. I was gripped. In the near future we could actually be able to erase painful or bad memories from people’s minds – neuroscientists are looking into it this very moment, said the presenter Jim Naughtie.

This could work a treat for people whose lives have been crippled by, for example, post traumatic stress disorder, but that’s just the beginning. It’s possible that we will be able to weaken specific neural networks that contain painful memories – the rejection at your first school disco, the break-up with your first love, that dreadful first job...

But we are the sum of our experiences, positive and negative, so to erase some bad ones is to erase a part of us. Here's a story that makes me shudder. In 1953 a young man in the US underwent brain surgery to control seizures, the result of a bike accident when he was nine. The operation was a success, of sorts. It sorted out the seizures but left him with profound amnesia. For the rest of his life, 55 years, he would never be able to create a new memory. Everyone he met, everything he did, would feel like the first time every time.

Now a human goldfish, Henry Gustav Molaison, became a source of tremendous scientific interest. Known to the psychological community as HM, he died in 2008. In his New York Times obituary, Dr. Thomas Carew, a neuroscientist at the University of California said: “What HM lost, we now know, was a critical part of his identity.”

Even with your most painful memories, you’re much better off than HM ever was. Perhaps you had a painful divorce, but you had some good times together and the experience has left you stronger. That terrible job where the boss made your life a misery might have also been the job where you met your husband and fell deeply, madly in love for the first time. What if you forgot that, too? It may be possible to erase the emotional pain of the experience without forgetting what you’ve learnt from it, said Aders Sandberg this morning. If you’ve experienced something utterly horrific, dulling the emotional pain could be just the thing to help you get your life back. I suppose that could be a good thing.

I’ve been thinking lots about what this brave new world of mind meddling could really mean for us. Once the technology’s in place, will we be lining up to have our memories enhanced, erased, re-imagined, in the same way we have our breasts/face/tummy done today?

Earlier this week I read that the credit crunch had seen a drop in plastic surgery procedures – down 9 per cent in the US this year. Alas, it’s up in the UK by 5 per cent. But perhaps this means our memories are safe a little while longer?