Erase Memories to Achieve Your Own “Eternal Sunshine”

Question: Why should people be allowed to erase their memories?

Matthew Liao:  So imagine that a drunk driver hits you and you’re… it crushes your leg and you’re completely traumatized by the event and they take you to the hospital and just before your operation they give you a pill to erase your memory of this traumatic event. Or imagine that your fellow soldier and… you’re a soldier and your fellow soldier gets blown up next to you and you’re very traumatized, then again they give you a pill to reduce the trauma of this particular event or imagine that you’re a heroin addict and you are… they give you a drug so that you can forget about your addiction in order to help you with the addiction.  It sounds like something from a movie.  Well, actually we’re getting pretty close to be able to do some of these things.  

So this is what we know now and what we can do now.  Basically memory is a system for storing and recalling experiences.  Our best account of memory right now is as follows.  Basically we experience certain events and a set of... a network of neurons get activated.  The more significant the event, the more... the stronger the connections between the neurons.  When we recall that particular event these neurons get... that network, that particular network gets reactivated again and so this is what we can do to affect, to modify our memories.  One is we can affect it at the storage level when it’s about to get stored, when it is about to get transferred from short term memory to long term memory and the way to do that is to affect the emotional strength of the storing process. So for example, propranolol, the drug, that’s how it works.  It works by weakening that storage process, weakening the emotional strength so that the memory doesn’t get stored into the long term memory.  The other process is through... is by affecting the recall of the memory.  Basically each time you recall a memory, the memory has to reconsolidate itself again and it needs proteins to do that and there… it’s been found that if there is excess protein that can disrupt the reconsolidation process thereby weakening the memory.  

The biggest limitation to memory modification right now is that basically as we have seen the memory is a network of neurons, so that means that basically it’s interconnected and it overlaps with one another, so that there is a danger that if you delete one you can delete other memories, so that is one of the biggest limitations right now.

So suppose you can perfect this technology what are some of the ethical issues?  Well basically memory is a piece of evidence so if you change your memory you can change what you believe to be true about the world and about yourself, so for example a soldier who takes propranolol this may… he may think that he is not... he really doesn’t want to be in a war when in fact, he lusts after the killing or you may believe something about yourself.  You may think that you’re really brave or cowardly or you may think that you’re really altruistic or selfish, but if you take some memory modification drugs you may change what you believe to be true about yourself, but these problems are not so worrying because one thing to remember is that a bit of falsehood might not be so problematic, so if you wanted to believe that you had a nice holiday so that you can feel more relaxed that may be okay as long as you don’t harm anybody.  Another thing to remember is that if the event is so important it’s not really just up to you because even if you can erase the memory in yourself other people will remember it, so even if it affects a bit of falsehood in you it might not affect other people as well.

Okay, so ultimately the point of using these drugs is to increase our personal well-being.  Now there is some obvious constraints to pursuing personal well-being.  One obvious constraint is to... sort of harm to others.  If you want to take these drugs so that you can feel less guilty when you commit a crime obviously this would constitute a harm to others and another constraint is harm to self.  An obvious example of that is if you just wipe all of your memories.  That would be...  In many cases that would be obvious harm to self. But there are also subtler forms of harm to self, self harm such as living in falsehood, affecting the way you react to certain situations morally and also your duties to remember certain things, but ultimately it seems that as long as you don’t harm other people you should be allowed to use these memory modification drugs in order to improve your personal well-being.

Could we ever zap memories using a machine like the one in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?"

Matthew Liao: Well you saw how they zap it, right? So it’s basically the whole network.  I think you’re zapping the whole network and that’s going to be pretty difficult without zapping other memories, but the way to do it I think is basically if you can get the right cues because basically you cue the memory, so if you can cue it right then only those networks come up and then you zap that then I think you can do it and actually there is some evidence of doing that.

If you look at FMI machines it’s kind of it seems like through correlations they can begin to figure out which part is… you know what people are thinking or what they are you know like when they’re imagining playing tennis, et cetera, et cetera, certain parts of the brain light up. And it seems like if you can get enough consistency, enough of a correlation that this is that particular memory then maybe you can begin to do that, but you’d have to do that many times and get you know a set of allotted correlation and stuff like that.  I think that would be the way to go.

Recorded July 27, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

Soon, neuroscientists will be able to use drugs to selectively erase traumatic memories from the brain. NYU bioethicist Matthew Liao thinks we should have the right to modify memories to improve our well-being.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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