The Million Dollar Question: Truth or Happiness? The Ethics of Memory Removal Technologies for Patients with PTSD

     

Fear. Even the word gives us goosebumps. Human beings have evolved to fear certain things, but sometimes, this unremitting feeling of panic can translate to a heavy burden, especially for patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental illness that a person can develop after experiencing a life- threatening situation, such as rape or fighting in war. PTSD patients are haunted by the memory of that traumatizing experience, often times finding it hard to think of anything else other than that moment.  Fortunately, scientists have recently discovered new methods to remove these traumatizing memories that just might give PTSD patients the break they have been looking for. Scientists are using optogenetics, which is the use of light to manipulate chemical, to weaken the connections between memory- holding neurons. Along with this, researchers have successfully experimented with new drugs to reduce the expression of memory- controlling proteins in the hippocampus, the memory control center of the brain. With the advent of these technologies, we must first take a step back and ask ourselves: what are the harms and benefits of these mechanisms? Are we doing more harm than good by enforcing these technologies? In this paper, I will discuss this question through the values of happiness and truth. Memory removal technologies pose a significant threat to one’s true identity but they also have extreme potential to bring about well needed happiness into the lives of PTSD patients. So, the real question comes down to: truth or happiness? This paper will explore the different sub- layers of each value: what is the difference between natural and artificial happiness? What exactly is a true identity? What is the truth of the human experience? Choosing between these two ideals is very difficult, but in a matter of a few years, PTSD patients will have to make a decision to this complex question, whether it is easy or not. Which one will it be: truth or happiness?


“I had to memorize the details, and I have not got it out of my head, it stays there — the things I saw,” she says. “The beheading — I saw someone who got their head cut off — I can still see that” (qtd. in Gotbaum). This is an account from Leslie Ridlon, a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)  patient. Like Leslie, PTSD patients experience equally intense and traumatizing episodic memories throughout their lives. These memories capture some of the most horrific experiences known to mankind: rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, a family death, a natural disaster, childhood neglect, and, like in Leslie’s case, war. It’s not an easy, nor simple, journey for patients with PTSD, as they are prisoners of their own minds, constantly being reminded of that painful experience throughout their lives. Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel for PTSD patients. In recent years, scientists and psychologists have been developing memory removal technologies, which, as the title suggests, are technologies that biologically remove specific memories from a person’s mind. With these new technologies, PTSD patients can finally get the break they have been looking for; no longer will the image of the beheading loom over Leslie’s head. However, things aren’t so black and white. With the usage of memory removal technologies, new and existing ethical dilemmas arise, such as: how will altering one’s memory impact their true identity? How will these technologies change what it means to be human? How much importance should we give to achieving happiness? Essentially, the question comes down to whether patients with PTSD should use memory removal technologies or not.

In exploring this question, I choose to frame my discussion through the values of happiness and truth. When it comes time to making the decision of whether to use these technologies or not, patients will indirectly be choosing between happiness and truth. Psychologists and scientists argue that undergoing these procedures could potentially jeopardize one’s true identity, as they are invasive means to altering one’s mental functions. However, the sole purpose of memory removal technologies is to improve the quality of life for PTSD patients by replacing fear with happiness, which is much needed for these patients. Thus, we could look at the decision of whether to use these technologies as a choice between two ideals, truth and happiness.

In this paper, I will be discussing these two ideals, happiness and truth, on individual levels. First, I will be analyzing the value of truth and the potential consequences and benefits that memory removal technologies can bring to one’s true identity. Next, I will be discussing the value of happiness in relation to the reality of a PTSD patient. Here, I will be exploring the different types of happiness and the role that society plays in the pursuit of this ideal. Then, I will bring these two values together to discuss what one must consider when it comes time to make the decision of whether they should use memory removal technologies or not. Next, I will share my own opinion on this ethical dilemma. In expressing my personal views, I will reiterate previously discussed arguments as well as introduce new perspectives. Finally, I will end with some takeaways and briefly discuss some further thoughts on the topic. With all of this information, my goal is for you to walk away from this paper with a better understanding of the complex, life- changing decisions that patients with PTSD will have to make with the advent of memory removal technologies.  It is essential that we discuss and fully apply ourselves to these ethical dilemmas as memory removal technologies have the potential to truly alter the lives of PTSD patients as well as society as a whole.

 

Factual Background

According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD is, “ a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault” (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs). Symptoms of PTSD are usually evident right after experiencing the traumatizing event, however, it is possible for signs to make an appearance months or years after the event. Symptoms include constant flashbacks, which is when the patient relives or re- experiences the particular incident, and avoiding situations that resemble the traumatizing experience, such as refraining from driving after being in a car accident. Patients also have reported experiencing increased negative emotions, such as feeling remorseful and experiencing heightened levels of anxiety. A part from these symptoms, PTSD patients are likely to develop depression, chronic pain, drinking and drug problems, and social problems, such as job employment and creating and sustaining relationships. Also, PTSD patients are six times more likely than someone without PTSD to commit suicide (Tull).

As one can imagine, happiness is hard to find in this sea of obstacles. Of course, the degree to which these obstacles are present varies depending on the person and the incident in which his or her PTSD originated from. According to the Kessler et. al (1995) study, “65% of the men and 46% of the women who had been raped met PTSD criteria in the study” (qtd. in Grau). Combat exposure, being threatened by a weapon, and childhood neglect are also top provokers of PTSD.  However, not all PTSD diagnoses come in extreme forms. Patients with mild forms of PTSD are able to overcome their symptoms in a one to three years time. Patients with severe forms of PTSD have a much more difficult time overcoming their illness and, if a breakthrough does occur, it only happens several years later (National Center for Biotechnology Information [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]). This is the form of PTSD that scientists are trying to combat with the development of memory removal technologies. This is also the degree of PTSD that I will be referring to throughout the paper.

In order to understand the purpose and functioning of memory removal technologies, we must first properly comprehend how fearful memories are formed. The memory formation process starts with a external or internal stimuli. The thalamus, which is a part of the brain that relays sensory information from the external and internal environment to the brain, picks up these signals and sends them to the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. The amygdala then labels the experience as emotionally significant and stores it in the memory files of the brain, which prevents us from engaging with that specific stimuli in the future. Finally, the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain, creates a physical representation of this memory through the creation of new bundles of neurons. After all of these processes are finished, the fearful incident will be physically built into one’s neural network. These new neurons are the primary targets of memory removal technologies (The Guardian).   

There are several different types of memory removal technologies, which are means to biologically removing a patient’s physical memories. The first one I would like to explain is optogenetics. Optogenetics is the use of light waves to manipulate the activity of neurons. The first step in using this technology is to introduce a transgene into the patient’s neural network. This transgene or protein causes the neurons associated with the fearful memory to light up when they are being used. To provoke activity from these particular neurons, the scientist will remind the patient of the traumatizing memory through external means. Once the correlating neurons are triggered they will light up, this will help the doctor know where to exactly target the laser. The laser can include a variety of light waves. To weaken neurons, scientists usually use low frequency light waves, since they cause the chemical and electrical activity in the neurons to shut down. As the doctor continues to target the neurons with the laser, the synaptic connections, which are the connections between neurons, will gradually weaken and eventually, the physical representation of the memory will no longer be vital. This procedure has been successfully executed on mice by Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu at Harvard Medical School (The Guardian). Another approach to removing memories is using chemical blocker drugs. Chemical blocker drugs are chemicals that are used to inhibit the functioning of the parts of the brain that control the formation of fearful memories. Xenon gas is an example of a chemical blocker drug and it has been successfully used at Harvard Medical School to reduce the activity of NMDA receptors, which control fearful memories (Collier). Furthermore, scientists at John Hopkins University discovered that the inhibition of the behavior of calcium-permeable AMPA receptors will remove the fear associated with a memory (Huganir). There are many new and upcoming memory removal technologies that are in the trial stages, but before these technologies arrive on the market for human use, we must first consider the ethical dilemmas that arise with them.

 

Ethical Considerations

Truth of One’s Identity  

The first value that I will be discussing is truth, specifically the truth of one’s identity.  I will be exploring the possible consequences memory removal technologies could potentially have on a person’s identity. When analyzing these ethical dilemmas, I will explore the different ways in which a true identity is defined, while trying to remain as objective as possible. I will be discussing these ethical dilemmas through two lenses: I will first discuss the ethical dilemmas in regards to one’s true identity as a whole. Then, I will dive deeper into the ethical considerations that arise when considering the human experience facet of one’s true identity.

I. Understanding the Groundwork

Before I begin to examine the ethical dilemmas, I must first explore what the common phrase “a true identity” really means. In defining what a true identity is, I struggled to find one correct answer. The definition of a true identity greatly varies from person, nation, and culture. However, despite this great diversity, we can still define a true identity through some major, common categories. First, often times people define their true selves by their cognitive abilities rather than their physical attributes and vice versa. Athletes may value their physical abilities whereas academics may define their true selves through their cognitive functionality. Of course, one could find equal value in both of these aspects. Also, a true identity can be defined through the human experience. The human experience includes a myriad of components, such as a person’s relationships, emotions, triumphs and failures, and many more. Therefore, we can define the truth of one’s identity by looking at the truth of their human experience. In addition, I personally believe that a person who embraces their true identity is one who sticks to their innate core values. This means that they make decisions, behave, and think in ways that correlates with their value system. Moreover, there are a variety of different religious perspectives on the truth of one’s identity. For instance, the religion of Hinduism defines one’s true identity has being rooted in one’s past actions and decisions. On the other hand, in Judaism, an integral part of a Jew’s true identity is their service to God, which can take the form of giving back to the community and acting with holiness in everything they do (BBC News Staff). With that said, I have now covered some of the major categories used in defining a true identity. But how does this relate to memory removal technologies? What is the correlation?

The purpose of memory removal technologies is to remove fearful and traumatizing memories from one’s mind. Memories are an essential part of our identity. They physically capture the previously discussed aspects of who we are; our values, cognitive abilities, emotions, and relationships are all stored in the memory files of our brain. In his Memory Theory of Personal Identity, John Locke explains that a person’s identity is solely based on psychological experiences or their memories, not the substance of their soul and body. Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics believes, “To deprive one’s self of one’s memory is to deprive one’s self of one’s own life and identity” (qtd. in Grau). Therefore, if we were to remove a memory from one’s mind, we are essentially removing a part of his or her identity. Thus, there is a direct relationship between these two abstract concepts, which is perfectly encapsulated through the famous phrase by Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”  

II. A Holistic Approach to the Truth of One’s Identity

There are a myriad of ethical dilemmas that arise when considering the relationship between memory removal technologies and the truth of one’s identity. However, I would like to acknowledge that one’s view of the following ethical considerations will greatly vary depending on his or her own personal definition of a true identity. But I will attempt to address all of the relevant interpretations and perspectives of the ethical dilemmas at hand. In this specific section, I will be addressing the ethical dilemmas that arise when examining the truth of one’s identity on a holistic level.

First, scientists and psychologists alike worry that patients who undergo memory removal procedures will lose sense of the “I” or their true selves. This is because traumatizing and fearful memories play such a critical role in the lives of patients with PTSD. New relationships are formed, new outlooks on life are adapted, and new emotions are experienced as a result of being diagnosed with PTSD. Therefore, removing a traumatizing memory would undoubtedly alter a person’s identity. A possible outcome could be that the patient is left all the more confused as to who they are, as they will have to fabricate new connections and stories to resolve the unremitting questions. We can understand this through a figurative lens: by removing a piece of the puzzle or a part of one’s identity, we can never fully complete the puzzle of one’s true identity.

This idea is illuminated in a report from the President’s Council on Bioethics. The council states:

Changing the content of our memories or altering their emotional tonalities…could subtly reshape who we are, at least to ourselves. With altered memories we might feel better about ourselves, but it is not clear that the better-feeling “we” remains the same as before. [A]n unchecked power to erase memories, brighten moods, and alter our emotional dispositions could imperil our capacity to form a strong and coherent personal identity….[W]e might often be tempted to sacrifice the accuracy of our memories for the sake of easing our pain or expanding our control over our psychic lives. But doing so means, ultimately, severing ourselves from reality and leaving our own identity behind. (Grau)

Here, the President’s Council of Bioethics emphasizes the risks memory removal technologies pose to one’s identity; by altering one’s memory, we are closing off access to his or her true self and instead, opening up a can of worms. The President’s Council on Bioethics also alludes to the concept of happiness versus truth. They question if the consequences of jeopardizing your true self is worth the “easing [of] pain or expanding our control over our psychic lives.” This is a concept that I will be discussing more in depth later on in the paper.

However, to better understand the ethical dilemma at hand, I would like to draw upon a parallel with the response that mentally ill patients have to taking their medications. Often times, mentally ill patients are prescribed medication, such as antidepressants, antipsychotic, and mood stabilizing pills to lessen the severity of their symptoms. Despite having this resource, many mentally ill patients refuse to take their prescribed medicine in fear of losing their “true self”. Therefore, this comes to show that there does exist a legitimate concern of losing one’s true identity, especially among patients with mental illnesses. And the arrival of memory removal technologies will direct  more attention towards this issue of losing the “I.”

Before moving forward, I would like to circle back to the concept of what defines a true identity. Above, I am making the assumption that a PTSD patient defines his or her true identity as having PTSD. Of course, many patients, especially with mental illnesses, feel as though their illness is a crucial part of who they are, but this isn’t always the case. A PTSD patient may think that their true self is without their diagnoses. In other words, their illness has masked them from their true self. Thus, if one was to define their true self through that particular lense, then memory removal technologies may actually help them to redeem their true selves. Therefore, memory removal technologies can either serve as an effective tool or an effective weapon depending on how a PTSD patient defines his or her true identity.

Though memory removal technologies could potentially pose a threat to a patient’s identity, many argue that the benefits of these technologies outweigh the negatives. First, some scientists and psychologists believe that memory removal technologies will accomplish the exact opposite of risking one’s identity by providing a platform for these patients to find their true selves. This platform is also known as the PTSD patient’s renewed ability to function. Dr. Arthur Caplan, the editor of Contemporary Debates in Bioethics, discusses the value of the ability to function:

I think we can change some memories without changing fundamentally who we are or how we behave…And even if it does change a little bit of our personal identity, it makes us able to function. We have to understand the plight of those who are prisoners to bad memories, to awful memories, to horrible memories. (qtd. in Delistraty)

Dr. Arthur Caplan alludes to the extreme burdens that PTSD patients carry that prevents them from being able to function. After experiencing the traumatizing event, a PTSD patient no longer has a tranquil mind. This event replays in the patient’s mind sporadically throughout his or her life and when the event is remembered, nothing else in that moment matters. As one could imagine, PTSD does severely inhibit a patient’s ability to function. Thus, scientists, such as Dr. Arthur Caplan, believe that using memory removal technologies will give PTSD patients the rare opportunity to function. With that ability, some professionals have gone as far as to argue that by being able to function, PTSD patients will be able to begin the journey of finding their true identity. They will have the freedom to piece together an identity other than one defined by a debilitating illness. Of course, now we are entering gray territory, in which we are touching upon this idea of a “superior” identity. Is an identity with PTSD inferior to an identity without PTSD? What does “superior” and “inferior” connote in this context? Possible answers to this question will be discussed later on in this section.

Another counter argument that has been proposed is that PTSD patients are already so distant from their true identities that they will probably never rediscover their “original” selves. Of course, this argument is based on the assumption that a patient’s true identity is defined as who they were before their diagnoses. Therefore, patients argue that since they have already fallen so far from the tree, they might as well undergo these procedures and be relieved of the burdens of PTSD. One can perceive this as a pessimistic approach to this ethical dilemma but there does lie validity in the argument. Can a person truly return back to their pre-illness selves after being diagnosed? This is a complex question that has been and continues to be explored by several scientists and psychologists. However, the odds are not in favor of full recovery.

The final counterargument that I will be discussing involves major life events. Some may argue that the impact that the major events of life, such as undergoing surgery, getting married, starting a family, and going off to college, on an individual’s identity are comparable to that of memory removal technologies. There is no doubt that the listed life events do have a significant influence on one’s life. A married couple most likely remembers every moment of their wedding and parents probably remember the first time they held their child in their arms. However, the main difference between the impact of these events and the impact of memory removal technologies is that these major events add to a person’s identity while memory removal technologies delete events from a person’s identity. There is great disparity between adding and deleting. By adding to a person’s identity, you are creating more memory files and neuron connections in their brain and the consequences aren’t as severe. However, by deleting a memory from a person’s identity, you are removing a part of their identity that can never be restored to one hundred percent originality. Deleting is an irreversible process that should only be done with special consideration and extreme thought. .

III. The Truth of the Human Experience

Now that I have discussed some of the ethical dilemmas that arise when considering one’s true identity through a general lens, I would like to take this conversation to a deeper level by examining the potential consequences that memory removal technologies can have on a major aspect of a person’s true identity: the human experience. Earlier, I briefly mentioned some of the main components of the human experience, but now I will go into further detail.

The question: what does it mean to be human?, has puzzled many philosophers and scientists alike. We can attempt to answer this through many approaches but for this paper’s purposes, I would like to explore what it means to be human through a psychological and emotional lens. A unique aspect of human beings is our ability to feel or to be emotional. Whether it’s happiness and joy or sorrow and fear, human beings experience millions of emotions at an increasingly rapid pace. However, for PTSD patients, this wide spectrum of emotions is limited by that traumatizing memory. Happiness, joy, and excitement are replaced with fear, anxiety, and vulnerability. As I am sure we all can attest to, experiencing fear, pain, and anxiety is no light burden, which is why many scientists and psychologists have devoted their careers to developing technologies that can relieve PTSD patients of this burdensome experience.

However, I would like to divert from this commonly taken path to argue that fear, pain, and, vulnerability is “good” even “beneficial” for PTSD patients. This is because these seemingly negative emotions can have the biggest positive effects on our lives. The field, Post- traumatic growth (PTG) which was developed by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s, analyzes the positive transformation an individual goes through after experiencing trauma. As the title suggests, traumatizing emotions allow for mental and cognitive growth in an individual. According to Tedeschi, “People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life” (qtd. in Collier). Other benefits include: increased resilience, a strengthened sense of self, and better preparedness for facing future endeavours. Therefore, these emotions that may seem burdensome on the surface, actually hold the tools and keys to a successful life. Of course, Post Traumatic Growth doesn’t occur in everyone, but it is common for PTSD patients to experience this positive transformation at some point in their life. With that said, I pose the question: are we doing more harm than good to PTSD patients by ridding them of the opportunity to reap the benefits of these “negative” emotions? But we must also address the uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). No one can predict when or if the benefits of PTG will come to fruition as well as if these benefits will outweigh the traumatizing emotions of PTSD patients. So, are the gems of PTG worth waiting on this uncertainty? Is it healthy to ask PTSD patients to wait?  

Along these lines, I would like to consider the impact of removing pain, fear and vulnerability from the human experience. A report from the President’s Council on Bioethics regarding memory removal technologies states:

[B]y disconnecting our mood and memory from what we do and experience, the new drugs could jeopardize the fitness and truthfulness of how we live and what we feel, as well as our ability to confront responsibly and with dignity the imperfections and limits of our lives and those of others. Instead of recognizing distress, anxiety, and sorrow as appropriate reflections of the fragility of the human life and inseparable from the setbacks and heartbreaks that accompany the pursuit of happiness and the love of fellow mortals, we are invited to treat them as diseases to be cured, perhaps one day eradicated. (qtd. in Grau)

The last sentence in this report especially worries me: “…we are invited to treat them [negative emotions] as diseases to be cured, perhaps one day eradicated.” Essentially what this is saying is that if we start to artificially remove pain, vulnerability, and fear from our human experience then we would be inadvertently introducing the idea of “perfection” into the definition of being human. Pain and fear will no longer be looked at as “normal” but instead as inferior emotions. And if we were to take this a step further and list all of the emotions that these negative feelings provoke, such as sympathy and empathy, we would be gradually removing the essential attributes of human beings. Is this what we want for the future of our society? Is this slippery slope worth the happiness gained? These are questions that we must contemplate when considering memory removal technologies.

Next, I would like to discuss how memory removal technologies impact the control we, as individuals, have over our lives. It is a unique part of the human experience to live with uncertainty about the future, to be heavily immersed in the grayness of life, and to accept that we can’t always have control over everything. However, I raise the point that memory removal technologies will eliminate the signature ambiguity of life by allowing us to have more control over our own futures. By using memory removal technologies, PTSD patients have the luxury of choosing what their future will look like. Of course, the outcome of the memory removal procedure comes with a lot of uncertainties, but the major perk of these technologies is the ability of choice; patients will have the rare opportunity to choose their future identity. However, does this new found privilege jeopardize the genuity and authenticity of forming an identity? I raise this question because the uncertainty and grayness that comes with a person’s future is what puts character and meaning into the experiences that form our identities.

Another aspect of the human experience that may possibly be jeopardized by the use of memory removal technologies is the concept of hard work. We all have gone through those dark periods in life in which we felt hopeless and helpless. However, eventually we flipped the switch and applied our efforts to finding the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, with memory removal technologies PTSD patients may not have to put in the effort or work to flip the switch. Memory removal technologies provides patients with the opportunity to resort to technology rather than their own inner strength, thus eliminating hard work and effort from the equation. One may argue that this would be beneficial to patients with PTSD, as no longer will they have to endure the constant setbacks and obstacles that come with common treatment options, such as psychotherapy. However, I would like to focus on the value of hard work. Yes, the process of applying yourself in difficult and uncomfortable ways is burdening and sometimes scary, but the fruits of these actions makes this process all the more compelling. Think back to a time in which all of your hard work paid off. How did you feel knowing that all of your hard work was put to good use? By applying hard work and seeing the fruits of it, we tend to feel more connected to our inner strength and being. Our confidence boosts and our relationship with ourselves becomes more intimate. However, we must acknowledge the nature of the situation of a PTSD patient. It is extremely difficult for these patients to put in the effort and focus into recovering and often times applying themselves further aggravates the situation. Therefore, to ask a PTSD patient to “tough it out” and put in the required effort isn’t always fair. Thus, resorting to technology may be the best option for PTSD patients, even though it means twisting the truth of their human experience.

The last ethical consideration that I would like to discuss is the impact that memory removal technologies can potentially have on a patient’s relationship with the world or their external environment. A major part of the human experience is our relationship with the outside world. This can take the form of relationships with people, being exposed to international events, being immersed in the community, and attending social events. PTSD, as a type of mental illness, is often times a result of a patient’s interactions with the outside world, as it is an illness that can derive from a traumatizing external experience. Also, PTSD impacts a patient’s relationship with the outside world. For instance, perhaps a patient regularly attends a support group in which he or she has made new friends or maybe a PTSD patient’s outlook on the happenings of the world have significantly changed because of their illness. Therefore, by removing a particular memory from a PTSD patient’s mind, what is essentially being done is that we are severing one of the many connections that a PTSD patient has to the outside world. No longer will the support group, the new outlooks on life, and that particularly fearful experience be of any significance; no longer will those relationships be of use. Christopher Grau, the author of the article, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Morality of Memory, perfectly synthesizes the essence of this potential dilemma through his commentary on the characters in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “…they have sacrificed a part of their minds and in the process blinded themselves to a part of the world.”. Given that the truth of who we are is heavily rooted in the external forces of life, are we removing too much from the identity of PTSD patients? When is it too much? Where do we draw the line?

A counter argument to these claims is that PTSD patients aren’t really experiencing the “true” human experience to begin with. This is reflected through a PTSD patients’ disconnectedness from the outside world. PTSD patients, often times, think more about themselves and their illness rather than their surrounding environment; these patients are consumed by their emotions and are constantly thinking about that particular memory, thus leaving no time for any other thoughts. Some also believe that PTSD patients aren’t living the true human experience because of the different range of emotions they experience. PTSD patients are enduring abnormally high levels of pain, anxiety, and fear and, as a result, normal human functions, such as social interactions, are particularly difficult for these individuals. Therefore, some may argue that since PTSD patients aren’t truly connected to the external world, applying memory removal technologies will have no profound impact on the truth of their human experience.

With those thoughts in mind, one can look at this discussion as a decision between two choices. In both choices the PTSD patient won’t be living the true human experience but in the first option, in which the patient undergoes the memory removal procedure, the patient would presumably be happier as the burdens of PTSD would be eliminated. But in the second option, in which the patient would restrain from using the technology, he or she will still be enduring the burdens of PTSD. When presented with these two choices, many would lean towards the first option, as it would bring about happiness into a PTSD patient’s life. Thus, in the context of this argument, the application of memory removal technologies seems much more compelling than that of refraining from these technologies.

In this section, The Truth of One’s Identity, I have discussed the major ethical dilemmas that arise in regards to the truth of one’s identity. When considering this value, it is important to address the diversity of ways a person can define a true identity. In exploring this subjective term, I addressed some of the major ways individuals identify themselves by, such as cognitive abilities vs. physical attributes and the concept of adhering to your values. When analyzing the different ethical dilemmas, one can look at the discussion through two different lenses: the truth of one’s identity on a holistic level and the truth of the human experience. An argument that was brought up was that PTSD plays an integral role in a patient’s identity and by removing this piece of the puzzle, patients could be left more confused and burdened than before. However, some scientists and philosophers argue that memory removal technologies will result in the exact opposite, since these technologies will allow for patients to actually function and thus begin the journey of finding their truth. When looking at this dilemma through the lens of the human experience, one can argue that we are doing more harm than good to PTSD patients by depriving them of the opportunity for growth and mental resilience or essentially, the gems of the true human experience. In contrast, some argue that PTSD patients aren’t living the true human experience, so memory removal technologies will not have a profound impact on the individual in terms of truth. Now that I have examined the value of truth, I would like to circle back to the question: truth or happiness? In this section, I discussed the reasons as to why a patient should choose truth over happiness, but I now pose the question: Is preserving one’s truth worth the missed opportunity of a life of happiness?

 

The Happiness Factor

Robin Henig from The New York Times writes:

Without witnessing the torment of unremitting posttraumatic stress disorder, it is easy to exaggerate the benefits of holding on to bitter memories. But a person crippled by memories is a diminished person; there is nothing ennobling about it. If we as a society decide it’s better to keep people locked in their anguish because of some idealized view of what it means to be human, we might be revealing ourselves to be a society with a twisted notion of what being human really means. (Henig)

In this vividly crafted statement, Henig directly contradicts the arguments made in the previous section with regards to the value of the true human experience. Instead, she makes the point that by constraining PTSD patients to their dark memories, we are acting in a cruel and desensitized manner; it is our job, as members of society, to help these patients achieve an adequate level of happiness. In this section, I will be discussing the ethical arguments for the use of memory removal technologies with regards to the value of happiness. I will examine the true nature of PTSD and its’ dangerous effects on patients. I will also analyze the efficacy of these technologies in achieving happiness, as well as the different types of happiness that will be introduced and diminished with the use of memory removal technologies.

The first argument as to why PTSD patients should be able to use memory removal technologies is simply because these technologies will bring about much needed happiness into the lives of PTSD patients. As Robin Henig alludes to, PTSD is by no means a mild illness. Patients with PTSD are six times more likely to develop depression and five times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than someone without PTSD. Also, PTSD patients are six times more likely to attempt suicide and enforce self- harm than a person without the illness. On top of all of this, PTSD patients are at greater risk for developing physical health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, heart problems, respiratory problems, and sexual dysfunction (Tull). As these facts and statistics suggests, PTSD is a debilitating force that has the potential to ravish both the mental and physical aspects of a patient. And these dismantling effects not only impact PTSD patients, but they also play a tremendous role in the lives of the family members of PTSD patients. According to the National Center for PTSD:

PTSD can make somebody hard to be with. Living with someone who is easily startled, has nightmares, and often avoids social situations can take a toll on the most caring family. Early research on PTSD has shown the harmful impact of PTSD on families.This research showed that Vietnam Veterans have more marital problems and family violence. Their partners have more distress. Their children have more behavior problems than do those of Veterans without PTSD. Veterans with the most severe symptoms had families with the worst functioning. (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)

As this excerpt and the above information highlights, the need for happiness in the lives of PTSD patients is a necessity that needs to be addressed and it can be fulfilled through the use of memory removal technologies. If we have the means to achieve the goal of happiness for PTSD patients, then wouldn’t it make most logical sense for us to pursue those solutions? Of course, the question comes up of whether those means are the most ethical ways of achieving this goal. To answer these questions, we must examine the priorities and needs of PTSD patients. Should happiness take precedence over truth, which can potentially be jeopardized by these technologies? However, in light of the previously shared facts and statistics, it would make sense for a PTSD patient to lean closer towards pursuing happiness, as it would not only relieve them of countless burdens but also their family members and close friends of the second-hand struggles they have to endure.

Before moving forward, I would like to address the efficacy of memory removal technologies in pursuing happiness. Happiness, like truth, is a very subjective term that will vary depending on the person, but scientists and psychologists believe that memory removal technologies will return PTSD patients back to a state of comfort and wellbeing, which is a degree of happiness. Of course, the results will vary from person to person and we won’t know if these hypotheses are actually accurate until we test these technologies on humans. But for now, the best we can do is examine the presented ethical dilemmas from the assumptions and predictions of professionals.

The next ethical argument that I will discuss is the potential for memory removal technologies to prevent PTSD patients from engaging in risky behavior. Often times, PTSD patients struggle with substance abuse disorders, such as addictions to drugs, alcohol, and nicotine. These addictions serve as a way for patients to cope with their PTSD but they also add to their unremitting burdens, as it brings with it a whole new set of health problems (National Center for Biotechnology Information). Therefore, memory removal technologies can introduce happiness into the lives of PTSD patients by ending their harmful addictions.

However, when examining the motives of PTSD patients in pursuing these technologies, many arguments do not point in favor of memory removal technologies. Happiness is a highly obsessed over ideal. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been fully committed to achieving happiness; people are willing to take any effort, no matter how extreme it is, to reach this favored goal. Our society has become so obsessed that people are willing to break laws and jeopardize their life for the pursuit of happiness.  To put this obsession into perspective, if you search up “happiness” on Google, you get over seventy- five billion results ranging from books to insider insights on how to achieve the “perfectly happy life.” In fact, the most popular course in the history of Yale University is a class on how to be happy, titled: “Psychology and the Good Life”, which is taught by psychology professor, Laurie Santos. Almost one- fourth of the University’s student population enrolled in this class (Dangremond). With this in mind, the question I raise is: how much of the PTSD patient’s desire to use these technologies comes from their own inner selves and how much is influenced by society’s own fixation on happiness? Do PTSD patients feel compelled to choose happiness over truth because of societal norms? If this is the case, what are the potential dangers of a patient making a life- changing decision based on society’s values and not their own? This is an especially important question for the context of memory removal technologies because this procedure is irreversible and it has lasting, permanent effects on almost every aspects of the patient’s life. One could argue that a patient shouldn’t be able to use memory removal technologies to begin with for the sole purpose of avoiding motive-based problems, such as the one just discussed. However, are these motive-based problems compelling enough to eliminate the prospects of a life of happiness and relief from a PTSD patient?

I. Artificial vs. Natural Happiness

In addition to the ethical dilemmas discussed above, I would like to dive deeper into a concept that is heavily rooted in the discussion of happiness. Like many emotions, there are many different types and degrees of happiness. The two most studied types and the ones I will be discussing in this paper are artificial and natural happiness. Natural happiness is defined in many ways but from these several definitions, you will find an overarching commonality, which is that natural happiness comes from within. Many psychologists define this “within” as a person’s own perspectives on life. If a person has a more positive outlook on life, they will most likely experience happiness more frequently compared to a person who has a more negative perspective. In other words, natural happiness is induced by the person, not by external forces. The other type of happiness that I will be analyzing is artificial happiness. Again, there are varying definitions, but for this paper, I will be defining artificial happiness as happiness that is induced by external forces, such as technology.

With that said, I would now like to move on in considering the significance of natural vs. artificial happiness with regards to the ethics of memory removal technologies. As mentioned in the beginning of this section, PTSD patients would most likely be using these technologies for the pursuit of happiness. However, are they signing up for the real deal by pursuing memory removal technologies? By achieving happiness via technology, these patients are receiving artificial happiness and according to the President’s Council on Bioethics, artificial happiness is not the real deal:

Memory and mood-altering drugs pose a fundamental danger to our pursuit of happiness. In the process of satisfying our genuine desires for peace of mind, a cheerful outlook, unclouded self-esteem, and intense pleasure, they may impair our capacity to satisfy the desires that by nature make us happiest. (qtd. in Grau)

Here, the Council is alluding to a hierarchy of happiness in which artificial happiness falls way beneath natural happiness. This hierarchy of emotions is reflected through common fables and sayings, such as the famous phrase: “you can’t buy happiness.” This phrase gets at the same idea that the President’s Council highlights above, which is that artificial happiness, such as happiness induced by wealth, cannot achieve “true” happiness, which is considered to be natural happiness. But why is this? Psychologists believe that artificial happiness is intrinsically temporary, meaning that it can easily and abruptly disappear, thus causing a harmful emotional response in the individual. On the other hand, natural happiness is considered to be more grounded and thus more permanent than artificial happiness. This is because natural happiness comes from ourselves, therefore since we have full control over ourselves, we have full control over our happiness. Whereas with artificial happiness, we do not have control over the external forces inducing our happiness, thus allowing for great uncertainty.

Now that we have considered the hierarchy of happiness, we must ask ourselves are we subjugating PTSD patients to a lower “quality” of happiness through memory removal technologies? Is this fair for us to do when they could possibly have achieved natural happiness later down the road? In other words, are PTSD patients settling for less by agreeing to use memory removal technologies? Don’t we want the best for patients?  However, it is important that we do not forget the primary stakeholder of this paper- the PTSD patient. What society deems “best” may not necessarily be the same “best” for a patient with a mental illness. Perhaps, artificial happiness is the highest level of happiness that PTSD patients can reach. Afterall, even though natural happiness does come from within, it is not an easy emotion to evoke, as it requires immense mental strength and resilience, which most PTSD patients lack. Therefore, natural happiness may not be a realistic solution for PTSD patients, thus making artificial happiness their only option. However, that is not to say that natural happiness is out of the picture for these patients. There are many ways in which a PTSD patient can achieve natural happiness. For example, a patient can participate in psychotherapy, which is a form of therapy that involves talking, or practice meditation and mindfulness, which enriches one’s mental strength. Of course, there are a myriad of solutions, but with each approach comes a heavy workload that may or may not be healthy for a patient. Thus, natural happiness is an option but the patient must be able to handle the uncertainty and obstacles that come with pursuing this higher quality happiness. On another note, we must consider if artificial happiness is better than no happiness at all? Yes, artificial happiness might be temporary and uncertain, but is it better than crumbling under the weight of pain and fear? This is a decision that the PTSD patient will ultimately have to make. When making this decision, the patient must consider his or her own values and the role they want happiness to play in their life.

In this section, “The Happiness Factor”, I explored the value of happiness from many different dimensions. When looking at the burdens of PTSD on the patient and his or her family, it is clear that happiness is an important necessity for these individuals. However, one must consider if memory removal technologies are the best options for achieving happiness. In examining this question, I discussed the potential efficacy of memory removal technologies and where these uncertainties lie in the larger discussion. When looking at the counter arguments, society’s influences on individuals becomes a dominating part of the discussion. One must consider society’s obsession with happiness in relation to the PTSD patient’s motives for engaging with these technologies. Finally, I considered the relationship between memory removal technologies and the concept of natural vs. artificial happiness. Memory removal technologies offer artificial happiness to PTSD patients, but according to the hierarchy of happiness, artificial happiness is not comparable to the benefits of natural happiness. Thus, questions, such as, are we subjugating PTSD patients to a lower quality of life via these technologies, and how does the term “best” change in regards to a mentally ill individual, arise. These are a few of the many questions that PTSD patients will have to consider as they begin the decision- making process.

 

Decision Time: What you need to know when it comes time to make your final choice

So far in this paper I have discussed the individual ethical arguments that each value, truth and happiness, brings to the table. Now, I would like to bring all of these points together to examine the dichotomy of these two ideals. This section will provide insights into what a PTSD patient should consider when making his or her decision as well as highlight the intrinsic nature of this life- altering decision.

First, to put this decision into perspective, I would like to start off with a case study that explores the complexities and difficulties of this decision: There’s a newborn baby with an unknown disease. In order to diagnose the baby, the doctor runs tests on the parents. In the process of running tests, the doctor finds out that the supposed father isn’t actually the biological father of the child. Should the doctor reveal the truth to the family? Or should the doctor just keep the information to herself, as it is not her place to tell and she could possible jeopardize the joy of the new family. What should the doctor do?

In this scenario, the doctor is put in a very challenging situation, as she is holding the future of the family in her hands. Similarly, PTSD patients will find themselves in the same boat when it comes time to make the decision of whether to use memory removal technologies or not and in their case, they will have their own futures in their hands, which can complicate the situation even more. To tackle this daunting choice, one should consider the differing benefits that truth and happiness provide us with. This concept is very subjective, therefore, the differences I will share in this paper  may or may not be in accord with your own beliefs. However, I will attempt to cover the most commonly discussed disparities. Truth, as an ideal we all strive to implement into our lives, provides us with justification for the uncertainties of life; we can always rely on the reassurance that we are following the truth of ourselves to guide us in the ambiguity of life. It has also been argued that truth provides one with long term satisfaction, thus truth is not a temporary emotion. However, with this long term satisfaction comes time and effort. Truth isn’t a value that is achieved right a way, it takes years on end for an individual to realize just a small part of who they are. But can PTSD patients afford that time and put in the effort? Happiness, on the other hand, is defined as a more temporary, short-term emotion that needs to be constantly re-fueled to experience the emotion frequently. In comparison to truth, happiness is fairly easier to achieve. This is because happiness is more of a tangible emotion. For instance, as mentioned in the “The Happiness Factor” section, there are direct, explicit directions to aid a person in achieving happiness. Whereas with truth, the directions aren’t as clear and direct since truth is more of an ambiguous, abstract value.

Of course, these are only a few of the differences between truth and happiness, but from these disparities, a PTSD patient should go on to ask his or herself: how do I want to frame my life? Through necessary happiness or valuable truth? A PTSD patient should assess his or her value system and decide which value resonates more. These steps are critical because by no means is this decision simple or insignificant. When choosing to use memory removal technologies, both happiness and truth aren’t guaranteed. If a patient chooses to undergo the procedure, then he or she could potentially be risking his or her truth, but if a patient refrains from using the technology, then he or she could be giving up a rare opportunity for happiness. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a PTSD patient can’t experience both emotions at any point in their future. However when looking at the “most likely” outcomes, the possibility of having both ideals becomes slim.

Before moving on, I would like to take a short detour and examine a unique study that provides insight into the reasoning behind people’s decisions, particularly when it comes to choosing between truth and happiness.  The study was conducted by two scientists, Yaacov Trope and Raj Raghunathan. Their goal was to determine which value, happiness or truth, people would be more inclined to choose based on their emotional mood. To answer this, they put the participants in either a negative or positive mood, then they read to them an essay on caffeine, listing both the positive and negative effects of this stimulant. They wanted to find out if the participants’ moods would influence how much of the positive and negative effects they comprehended. Here are their results:

Our findings revealed that participants’ mood did make a difference to their receptivity to negative information: Participants in a positive mood were more likely to process negative effects of caffeine consumption. Participants in a negative mood, on the other hand, were much more likely to process positive information about caffeine. These results suggest that participants in a negative mood were much more interested in “repairing” their mood (i.e., becoming more “happy”), whereas those in a positive mood were more receptive to the “truth” (in this case, about the effects of caffeine consumption)(Raghunathan). 

Essentially, Dr. Raghunathan is suggesting that the more negative your mood is, the more likely you are to choose happiness over truth and vice versa. Therefore, if one was to apply this to the situation of a PTSD patient, who is experiencing elevated levels of pain, one could assume from this study that PTSD patients are more likely to choose happiness over truth. Of course, this is an assumption made from a single experiment, thus we do not know if this conclusion is completely accurate.

However, if we were to assume this conclusion was accurate, we must analyze the impact that these findings have on the decision making process. Should there be regulations put in place to prevent people from choosing solely based on emotions? Should we put more weight on the truth side to this argument, given that majority are trending towards happiness? But is it practical for us to attempt to manipulate a patient’s decision, if it is a part of human nature to choose happiness over truth? What does this pattern of prioritizing happiness mean for society? What does this mean for the concept of a true identity, especially for the PTSD community? These are all questions that need to be explored and resolved, as these are issues that can potentially have a profound impact on an individual and societal level.

In this section, I discussed the decision between truth and happiness. I suggested ways in which PTSD patients should go about resolving this decision as well as explored a riveting study that added another layer to this conversation. With a decision like this, comes great complexities and unremitting questions. However, at the end of the day, it’s up to the PTSD patient to take into account all of these different angles and make their final decision.

 

My Thoughts on the Subject

In this section, I will be sharing my own thoughts on the ethics of memory removal technologies. In explaining my stance, I will incorporate arguments that have been discussed in prior sections, as well as introduce some new perspectives. Throughout my time researching, I found it extremely challenging to choose a side, as I felt passionate about both of the arguments. However, given my own values and background, I found myself leaning more towards the argument that memory removal technologies are unethical given the value of truth.

In deciding this, I gravitated towards the concept of the true human experience. Humans have evolved in a way that prepares them for ever- changing obstacles. The overpowering effect of fearful memories on our minds is an example of how we have evolved for the better; fearful memories prevent us from repeating the same situations, thus, in a way, they serve as a safeguard for the human race. Therefore, if we were to remove our fearful memories, no matter how painful they were, we would be exposing the human race to a window of vulnerability and danger. In fact, the worst of memories, which are the ones that PTSD patients experience, are the ones that protect us from the most horrific and traumatizing experiences, thus making them even more important to preserve.

Along with ensuring our safety, fearful memories also give us the wonderful opportunity to learn about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Think about the impact that Holocaust survivors have had on society for the past few decades. Society, as a whole, was able to learn and grow from the painful memories that survivors so courageously shared. This process also occurs often on an individual level, as I mentioned earlier with the discussion on Post- Traumatic Growth. Therefore, I do not think that the happiness of one group is worth closing the doors to generations of growth and learning for individuals and society.

Furthermore, I personally fear the idea of eradicating the emotions of fear, vulnerability, and pain from the face of society, which is a potential future consequence of these technologies. Fear, pain, and vulnerability are vital assets of the human package. From these seemingly negative emotions, comes true beauty and transformations, which can be lost if we remove these emotions. However, this is not the only change. With the removal of fear, vulnerability, and pain, comes the romanticization of perfectionism. Perfectionism, an impossible ideal, will be framed as realistic, which will, as a result, add immense burdens to the already filled sleights of society. Of course, I understand that happiness is an emotion that is well needed by PTSD patients. However, there are numerous alternatives to memory removal technologies that can very well provide the same outcome. For example, many PTSD patients currently practice psychotherapy, which is healing through conversation. Also, massage therapy, which incorporates physical touch and healing, and mindfulness, which is becoming in touch with your mind and body, are two other mainstream practices that have been proven to be successful for many patients. Of course, memory removal technologies come with their own set of unique benefits that the alternative methods do not provide, however, I do not think that the risks of memory removal technologies is worth the potential happiness received.

In this section, I discussed my own opinion with regards to this ethical dilemma. The truth of the human experience, the value and roles of fearful memories in society, and the potential societal consequences of removing fear dominated my thought processes during my research. Both sides did speak strongly to me, but at the end of the day, I felt as though the value of truth spoke the loudest.

 

Concluding Thoughts  

To use or not to use? To play it safe or to play it risky? Happiness or truth? These are the questions that arise with the advent of memory removal technologies. Throughout this paper, I have discussed ethical arguments that cleared the way to answering these questions. First, I considered the value of truth in support of not using memory removal technologies. I analyzed the correlation between one’s true identity and memories. In doing so, I referenced a metaphor: if one was to remove a traumatic memory, they would be removing a essential piece of the puzzle, thus disabling them from completing the puzzle of their true identity. In regards to truth, I also discussed the value of the true human experience and the negative consequences that can arise when distorting this reality. In explaining the value of the human experience, I examined the field of post- traumatic growth, which is an area of study dedicated to examining the positive impacts of traumatizing experiences. I considered the future conflicts of distorting this truth,  such as a lack of sympathy and the absence of beneficial negative emotions.

After exploring the truth perspective of this dilemma, I moved on to discuss the other side of the argument through the value of happiness. Here, I took an empathetic approach to my arguments. I tried my best to understand the reality of PTSD patients and the burdens that would bring them to wanting to use these technologies. PTSD patients and their families endure both emotional, social, physical and financial problems that cannot be overlooked. Memory removal technologies may be the break these families and patient have been waiting for. However, in contrast to this argument, I analyzed the type of happiness this technology provides, which is artificial happiness. I compared and contrasted artificial and natural happiness and came to the conclusion that natural happiness was the higher quality option. With that in mind, I asked myself: are we subjugating PTSD patients to a second class level of happiness via these technologies? But then the question, isn’t some happiness better than no happiness?, counters this point.

Once I discussed both sides of the argument, I moved on to consider the actual decision between truth and happiness. In considering this area, I explored the intrinsic differences between truth and happiness, such as one value being more permanent than the other. I also referenced a compelling study that suggested the existence of a hierarchy of emotions. In this hierarchy, happiness sits on top of the pyramid while truth is rarely sought after, especially by people in negative moods, such as PTSD patients. With these riveting results, I reflected upon how the ethical discussion changes knowing this new piece of information. Should there be more regulations put in place to prevent everyone from automatically choosing happiness? What does this mean for the future of our society if truth gradually banishes from our world?

Finally, I introduced my own opinion on this ethical dilemma. I personally believe that the arguments for truth or refraining from using the technology is stronger than that of happiness or using the technology. The potentially burdening consequences that society will have to endure as well as the available alternative options led me to my current position.

Before ending, I would like to briefly address some further thoughts on this ethical dilemma that I did not have time to discuss in my paper. First, before memory removal technologies hit the market, we must create a sound criteria for determining whether a memory can be removed. This is especially complicated because everyone has a different pain threshold and to try to categorize such diversity is by no means simple. Questions such as, should memories of people be off limits and how much pain does the memory need to evoke to qualify, arise when thinking about this criteria. I personally believe that the criteria for memory removal should be based on the impact of the memory, rather than the type of memory. Of course, there will need to be some standard method in place to measuring the impact of the memory on the patient. Next, I would like to consider the potential for memory removal technologies to serve as bioweaponry. Think about how useful these technologies can be for criminals, who want to silence their victims. Think about the impact this can have on our justice system; no longer can we put our full trust in the witnesses who testify or the victims who were wrongfully hurt. These are some serious implications that can endanger the wellbeing and safety of society. Lastly, I would like to address the impact that memory removal technologies can have on patients with memory loss diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Millions of patients are fighting to retain what little they have left of their memories, but in the future, people most likely will be signing up and paying large amounts to voluntarily remove their memories. As one could imagine, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients could feel as though their own experiences are devalued and not acknowledged by society. Not only could their experiences loose significance, but also the functionality of memory. This beautiful, advantageous function of the brain could be best known for being silenced rather than being used.

The million dollar question: truth or happiness? A question that is synonymous with the decision of whether to use or not to use memory removal technologies. But, I would like to take this question out of this context and into our daily lives. I encourage you to reflect upon the arguments I presented before you in this paper and apply these considerations into your own life. How do you want to write the story of your life? Will happiness prevail or will it be truth that steals the show? I suggest thinking about your own value system and what constitutes a true identity for you. We must start thinking about these two ideals, as our lives are greatly influenced by truth and happiness. So, which one will you choose?

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