March 17, 2009
Recently, over at The Links, I got into a brief back and forth (one back and one forth, actually) with someone named Ledgergermane on an article I’d posted. The article was about scientists removing the parts of a rat’s brains where traumatic and fearful memories are stored. I’ll cut and paste so you can avoid the Tumblr layout:
Original quote from article:
“Scientists used to “delete” large parts of mice brains trying to remove fear memories. Now they are instead targeting specific neurons called known as the lateral amygdala. And they’re having some success…”
And an added description, again from the article (emphasis mine):
“Our experiences, both good and bad, teach us things,” said Josselyn. “If we didn’t remember that the last time we touched a hot stove we got burned, we would be more likely to do it again. So in this sense, even memories of bad or frightening experiences are useful. However, there are some cases in which fearful memories become maladaptive, such as with post-traumatic stress disorder or severe phobia. Selectively erasing these intrusive memories may improve the lives of afflicted individuals,” she said.
“Our memories are an essential part of who we are, in fact some believe it is the ongoing connection between our thoughts and memories that constitutes our identity,” said Christine Harrison, SickKids Director of Bioethics. “As the research in this area continues to evolve, so do the ethical considerations related to potential future therapies.”
“One would hope at the very least ethical considerations are taken into account. The underlying problem I find with this type of “therapy” (if it can even be called that) is there already exists profound ways humans have developed over time to “let go” of the bad. Just because we now can take an axe to your mind and hack out the bad, should we? Not only can things go wrong, but in terms of your own identity as a developing human being, we do learn more from the bad than the good.”
And my reply:
“Yeah, I completely agree. Seems as if we just want all bad results of things to go away, instead of taking them for what they are: experimental results. If bad things happen, it’s because bad things went into their making. From one way of looking at it, all life is suffering, and that suffering is there to be seen through, not to be turned off!”
Now, I’m not just sharing my conversations from other sites with you here; there’s more to it than that. I found some information on a different study that ties in pretty closely with this one, and I think that the two combined warrant some further exploration. I don’t like exploring ideas on the tumblr site, so I’m moving it over here.
From the second study (which I found via Futurismic):
Before fear memories are stored in the long-term memory, there is a temporary labile phase. During this phase, protein synthesis takes place that ‘records’ the memories. The traditional idea was that the memory is established after this phase and can, therefore, no longer be altered. However, this protein synthesis also occurs when memories are retrieved from the memory and so there is once again a labile phase at that moment. The researchers managed to successfully intervene in this phase.
During their experiments the researchers showed images of two different spiders to the human volunteers. One of the spider images was accompanied by a pain stimulus and the other was not. Eventually the human volunteers exhibited a startle response (fear) upon seeing the first spider without the pain stimulus being administered. The anxiety for this spider had therefore been acquired.
One day later the fear memory was reactivated, as a result of which the protein synthesis occurred again. Just before the reactivation, the human volunteers were administered the beta-blocker propranolol. On the third day it was found that the volunteers who had been administered propranolol no longer exhibited a fear response on seeing the spider, unlike the control group who had been administered a placebo. The group that had received propranolol but whose memory was not reactivated still exhibited a strong startle response.
This seems to point to an entirely different way of looking at the exact same problem. Rather than removing the offending neurons that held the traumatic emotional memory, we open up those neurons to the same traumatic experience and make sure that this time, there is a way remove the negative emotional response associated with that memory. As Ledgergermane points out, people throughout history have developed many ways of doing this throughout human history, but in this case, that removal of the fear response is accomplished chemically.
And this, I think, points to one thing that science has over all the other great traditions of humanity: that science’s accomplishments can be given to others without their ever needing to learn how to create those accomplishments themselves. This aspect of science is not always well used, and it can foster a lot of laziness, but I think it is an important distinction to make. It’s happening anyway, better that we are at least aware of that fact. The more aware we are, the better we can make use of it for the good, and to be honest, people are going to be lazy anyway. We might as well do what we can to help make them suffer a little less.
The wikipedia article on beta blockers says:
“Some people, particularly musicians, use beta blockers to avoid stage fright and tremor during public performance and auditions. The physiological symptoms of the fight/flight response associated with performance anxiety and panic (pounding heart, cold/clammy hands, increased respiration, sweating, etc.) are significantly reduced, thus enabling anxious individuals to concentrate on the task at hand.”
This also brings to mind something Ran Prieur had linked to a while back:
A long time ago, so long that I can’t remember the source, I learned that if you stub your toe, all you have to do is repeat the same action several times, without quite stubbing your toe again, and the pain will go away. I used that a lot unthinkingly, but in later years I studied the process in detail and began teaching it in my courses, suggesting that the students try out variations. The concept I developed was that by re-creating the pattern and changing the ending, you were, in effect, giving the ku [subconscious] a new memory of the event, requiring the ku to change the body state in conformity to the new version of what happened. The sooner you could do this after the event, the sooner the body would get back into harmony.
That apparently comes from a book called “Urban Shaman” by a man named Serge Kahili King who practices a Hawaiian form of shamanism known as Huna. More info on Huna is available here (although, caveat lector, from wikipedia: “Many Native Hawaiians resent the representation of Huna as being Hawaiian and regard it as an invention with no Hawaiian basis.” Also, wikipedia ties Huna in the New Thoght Movement…)
What all this points to for me is twofold. First, the idea that a large part of our suffering is caused by assumed connections between physical experiences and emotions responses, with the retention of those assumptions in our memory as permanent aspects of reality, irregardless of whatever new data we might receive on the matter.
And two, that these misunderstandings of reality can be overcome by retraining and rewiring the brain (be that surgically, chemically, medatatively, or any other way). What better way could we have to describe the neuroscience corresponding to dukkha?
The quote from Urban Shaman seems to imply that this can apply to physical pain as well, which is arguable. But really, how much of physical pain is actually physical pain, and how much is merely memory? Think of children. Everyone knows that children, when they fall down, will get right back up and start playing again unless an adult gives them some indication that they could be hurt (“oh, baby, are you OK?”). Then they start crying, because that’s the role they’ve been given to play.
I’m not saying pain doesn’t exist, but a differentiation needs to be made between the actual experience of pain and the suffering caused by the memory of (and our identification with) that pain. And I’d much prefer chemicals over surgery, if only because in surgery, you can’t ever put those neurons back in. Of course, I’d also prefer mediation over chemicals, but I think that should be obvious to by now…
And to end up, I think I will bring in a little quantum physics as well. I linked to it before, but here’s that MP3 of Alan Wallace discussing free will, where he mentions Steven Hawking’s take on how the entire past might always be open to reinterpretation. After all, what are memories but past measurements we have made permanent?