LectureHop: Speak, Memory… Or If You Don’t Feel Like It That’s Chill Too

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Dr. S. Matthew Liao

Focus on summoning your absolute best memory. Relive your happiest moment. Do you have it in mind? Good. Now, what if it never actually took place?! Bwog gray matter enthusiast Bijan Samareh joined Dr. S. Matthew Liao for a lecture in the rafters of Schermerhorn to engage in just such speculation. 

Is the lingering memory of rejection worse than rejection itself? Are the fond memories of a relaxing vacation more valuable than the vacation itself? What if we could tamper with such recollections, artificially creating the sweet remembrance of a trip to Tuscany or erasing the harrowing grief accompanying the loss of a loved one? Explored thoroughly in Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, biochemists are coming closer and closer to turning this Science Fictiony concept of adding and erasing memory into a reality through memory altering drugs. If it were to happen, however, who would decide what gets erased and created?

S. Matthew Liao sought to explore exactly this in his lecture “The Ethics of Erasing Memories ‘Eternal Sunshine’ Style” Thursday night in the 9th floor of Schermerhorn, a high-ceilinged wonder that few non-psych majors have dared explore. Amidst eager grad students and elderly academics of the tweed and wool variety, the young Dr. Liao explored this scenario through bland powerpoint slides as we nibbled on a fine assortment of cheeses in the dark classroom. Liao outlined many angles through which to approach the issue, combining scientific experiments with philosophical modes of thought. Take that, staunch liberal artists! You too, haughty engineers!

It is no wonder that Mr. Liao has an interest for interdisciplinary endeavors, as he comes from a very diverse academic background. His parents, two Taiwanese immigrants, gave birth to a family of researchers and doctors. Though he was interested in the sciences, Liao was the black sheep of his family, and after a failed attempt at an Econ major, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton with a degree in politics. He the went on to combine his knack for science with his passion for abstract though by attaining a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford, where his thesis asked things like whether or not children have the right to be loved. As a fellow, researcher, and professor, he has graced the halls of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, and currently makes his academic home at N.Y.U. as an Associate Professor of Bioethics affiliated with the Philosophy Department.

The elementary methods currently available for adding and erasing memories don’t make Liao’s concern an immediate one, but substantial pharmaceutical progress has been made. So far, memory enhancing drugs exist—often used by doctors and pilots working long shifts, as well as drugs that dampen traumatic memories into hazy blurs, ridding users of say, the episodic memory of killing someone or being beaten. The users of these drugs still carry the semantic memory of the occurrences, but they become more of a fact than a memory. Among soldiers with PTSD and victims of abuse, these drugs have been popularly received.

One of the most engaging scopes through which Liao approached the bioethics of memory-altering drugs concerned truth. For example, he brought up a scenario in which a woman becomes a feminist due to her abusive father. What if the memories of her father’s abuse were erased? She would most likely not be so inclined towards feminism. Memory helps form identity, so wouldn’t those with an altered memory be living in falsehood? This might be okay for those suffering from unbearable memories, but that line becomes blurred pretty much immediately.  Also, does beneficent falsehood exist? People often mistake themselves for being more attractive than they really are, and Liao considers this a good thing, as it inclines one towards social interaction. Would it be so bad to plant the memory of holidays that never occurred or love that never existed in order to make someone’s life brighter? Again, the question of falsehood and whether or not it can be considered a good thing arises.

Falsehoods often diminish the capacity for self-knowledge. Instead of learning from mistakes, memory altering drugs cause one to forget mistakes altogether. This certainly makes it difficult to effectively learn lessons. For prisoners, a drug working in the other direction is also of interest. Should we enhance the memory of convicts in order to more accurately present their testaments in front of a jury?

Liao’s lecture ended with him drawing a preliminary line between who should and shouldn’t receive the drugs and who shouldn’t in relation to suffering; if someone’s pain is unbearable, they should be able to rid themselves of it. Like any other pharmaceutical, memory altering drugs should serve the cause of well-being. In fact, many of these drugs are being developed as Alzheimer’s treatments as opposed to treatments to help people forget about their exes. He suggests that patients should make these decisions for themselves, but doctors should have some sort of say or gauging of the patient’s condition.

During the Q&A it wasn’t long before someone had to mention “The Clockwork Orange Effect” and various grad students and professors of psychology duked it out. While the arguments and speculation were fun, it remained a “What if?” scenario. These drugs are nowhere near being able to alter memory in the manner Kaufman depicted them in Sunshine. In fact, the drugs that “add” memories only currently work on rats. Still, Dr. Liao’s ability to stimulate such discussion validates his presentation as one of great interest to scientists and philosophers alike.

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  1. Anonymous  

    Dr. Liao is really cute

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