Oops, There Goes My Childhood: Identity and Clinical Ethical Issues in the Selective Erasing of Memories

International Neuroethics Society Student Essay Winner, 2016


July 10, 2017

Each year the International Neuroethics Society (INS) holds a Student/Postdoc Essay Contest to promote interest in neuroethics among students and postdocs early in their academic careers. This is one of the two winning essays for 2016; the other is by Monique Wonderly.

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 The 2016 INS Student/Postdoc Essay Contest winners Kaitlyn McGlothlen and Monique Wonderly, center and right, received a Michael Patterson Neuroethics Travel Stipend, presented by Dr. Michael Patterson, pictured left. Photo courtesy of INS

By Kaitlyn McGlothlen, University of Washington, departments of philosophy and psychology

I. Introduction

How do you define your identity? The concept of identity is central to nearly all ethical discussions surrounding neural engineering. Many ethicists and philosophers have attempted to define identity over the years, and have debated the role it plays in ethical issues in the process. Mo Costandi’s article concerning a neural pathway that can lead to the active erasing of memories prompts an interesting discussion on identity. When taking into consideration the emerging technology it will become apparent that the current definitions of identity are not independently sufficient for discussing ethical issues, which will ultimately lead me to propose my own hybrid theory. To begin I will go into depth regarding two leading definitions of identity that I will later combine. After discussing their strengths and weaknesses, I will combine the psychological continuity theory and narrative theory to redefine identity. The goal of the hybrid theory is to overcome objections that the individual definitions face, and more importantly show why the active erasing of memories is problematic. Finally, using the neural pathway stimulation article, I will expand on why memory is crucial to any definition of identity.

II. The Neural Pathway Study and Memory Formation

Simply put, memories are formed by the strengthening and weakening of synaptic connections within circuits in the hippocampus. Previous studies done by Cornelius Gross of the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) in Italy identified a specific cell type, granule cells in the dentate gyrus, that when inhibited led to mice not being able to learn to avoid a part of the cage paired with a light shock (Costandi). The lab’s latest study done by Noelia Madroñal explored the dentate gyrus further. They learned that inhibiting specific cells during the learning procedure prevented mice from associating the area with the shock (Madroñal). With microelectrodes implanted into the brains of mice, they found the inhibited cell actually weakened synaptic connections along a neural circuit within the dentate gyrus. Further, the researchers then identified a cell surface receptor, Nyp1, which upon activation “can induce a rapid loss of hippocampal memory” (Madroñal). In the future, the activation of this receptor combined with exposure to the trauma could lead to the targeted erasing of certain memories. If this treatment were to arise, it could mean new solutions for conditions in which intrusive thoughts or unwanted memories frequently arise, such as with PTSD.  And while this treatment remains far off, the mere concept of causing selective memory loss prompts an ethical discussion. When one takes memories into account in regards to identity, we see that the act of purposefully erasing memories is problematic.

III. Existing Theories of Identity

Before considering how actively erasing memories is problematic, it is important to thoroughly understand the current interpretations of identity. The two current concepts of identity we will focus on are: numerical identity (specifically psychological continuity) and narrative identity. Before creating a hybrid theory, the two individual theories first must be understood.

Numerical identity concerns psychological or biological processes in its definition of identity, and can be split into two separate sub-theories. For the hybrid, I will focus on psychological continuity, which concentrates on identity as certain continuous mental states throughout one’s lifetime. This can range from intentions, beliefs and character traits, to basic psychological capacities such as a basic capacity for reasoning (DeGrazia 265). What sets people apart from each other concerning identity is “their distinctive consciousness or mental contents” (Mackenzie 377). However, since the psychological continuity theory of identity is focused on the logical relation of identity it struggles to explain change. For example, this view implies that a person with dementia is not the same individual they were before the disorder, or a “permanent loss of the capacity of consciousness entails the end of our existence” (DeGrazia 265). To be improved this theory needs to be able to account for change over a person’s lifetime. Because of the issues with this psychological continuity theory of identity, a more cohesive definition of identity is needed. But before understanding the hybrid, it is important to summarize the other relevant theory of identity: narrative identity.

Like the psychological continuity theory, the narrative theory of identity too has its advantages and disadvantages. To form our narrative theory, it is crucial to include many factors: our history, past actions, experiences, future intentions and plans. A person’s identity is formed by creating an autobiographical narrative- a story of his or her life (Baylis 516). Our narrative incorporates our character traits, habits and emotional dispositions, and defines identity through the parameters above (Mackenzie 380). Unlike the psychological continuity theory, it does consider the effect the outside world has on an individual in order to account for change. However, while it does explain change, “narratives involve interpretation rather than bare representations of our personal histories” (Mackenzie 381), meaning it can be unknown if the self-narratives are accurate or a result of faulty psychological processes. Within this theory the process of forming one’s identity is dynamic, so to improve it needs a way of ensuring that the process of forming one’s narrative is accurate. Now that each individual theory is understood separately, the way in which each model would interpret the issue of erasing memories is crucial, as it reveals weaknesses in both theories of identity.

If we defined identity as just each individual theory, would the neural pathway article and potential new memory altering technology pose an ethical problem? Looking at the active erasing of memories through both the existing theories, it becomes apparent neither would see the ethical issue as problematic. It is intuitive to most that erasing memories is problematic, however, the two theories disagree. Within the psychological continuity perspective, the active erasing of memories “does not change the person to become a metaphysically distinct entity” (Mackenzie 378). It would not threaten this model of identity, because the person has the same continuous psychological states. Memories do not play a role in a person’s continuity so erasing memories would not be problematic. If we defined identity in terms of the narrative model, would erasing memories be an ethical issue? The narrative theory sees this as more problematic than the psychological continuity model because it accounts for change, so it would simply add the erasing of memories to the individual’s self-narrative. However, if the memory of the erased event is crucial to the person (experiences that form their character traits, reasoning why they act in specific ways) then wouldn’t they also need the erased memory as part of their self-narrative? Identity is a multi-factorial entity consisting of both good and bad memories, and by removing certain memories the self-narrative would have pieces missing.  While the narrative model sees erasing memories as more problematic than the model focusing just on psychological states, independently it is still insufficient for a theory of identity. Because the psychological continuity theory does not see erasing memories as problematic and the narrative theory lacks reliable narrative forming processes, they are not sufficient by themselves to look at ethical issues with and a hybrid theory is necessary.

IV. Hybrid Theory of Identity

A hybrid theory addresses the weaknesses of each individual theory, and defines identity in a way (with an emphasis on memory) that sees actively erasing memories as problematic. To produce the best concept of identity it is necessary to combine the psychological continuity theory with the narrative theory of identity. The psychological continuity theory needs to account for change, which the narrative theory does well. The narrative theory needs to ensure the psychological processes are accurate, which can come from the opposing theory because continuous mental states are central to the theory. With the hybrid model, identity is defined as our consciousness and mental states, but takes into consideration the change over a person’s lifetime. The current definitions by themselves do not adequately overcome objections and only look at pieces of a larger spectrum of identity, which is why combining them is necessary to understanding the entire concept of identity and related ethical issues. To ensure the psychological processes used in the narrative theory are reliable and in order to have the ability to deal with change over an individual’s lifetime, the hybrid needs elements of both theories. However, within the hybrid theory itself one essential element needs to be emphasized: memories.

It is crucial to define identity in a way that highlights the role of memories, or else erasing memories would not be seen as an ethical issue. Memories are important because they play a role in shaping who you are; the past dictates how you are more likely to act in the future. You need these past actions to act in a knowledgeable and informed way. Additionally, the mourning process and emotional responses following a memory are just as crucial as the memory itself. For example, consider Martha, who woke up after a car accident with severe retrograde amnesia and no memories from her past. She claims she has no idea who she truly is. The car accident damaged the area of her brain responsible for storing memories, therefore rendering her unable to recall anything from her past. If we look at identity from a multi-faceted approach we would say that a crucial piece of Martha’s identity has been taken from her, as it is evident that without her memories she is unrecognizable both to herself and to those around her. While some may argue that since she is the same physical being she has the same identity, I would argue that identity is more complex than that. A person’s identity is more than just their physical presence. Consider conjoined twins with one body but two separate personalities, loves, fears, and opinions: if a person’s identity was determined by just this one physical factor, the twins would have a single identity. But as they are separate thinking entities, they have separate identities. Just because Martha is the same breathing being she was before, does not mean her identity is the same. Memories play a crucial role in determining a person’s identity, and without them it is apparent something is missing.

Identity needs to include memories because the reason why a person is who they are, is just as crucial to understanding identity as who they actually are. Martha needs those memories to understand her identity. It is only once she recovers her old memories or begins to build new ones that that missing piece of her identity will be restored. Each person has different memories making up who they are: some central to identity, others smaller yet still important. Every action builds off the last and memories play a crucial role in informing future endeavors. To precisely define identity, it is necessary to integrate memory. The proposed hybrid model looks at identity through a multi-faceted approach; from both the individual’s psychological standpoint but also the narrative standpoint, incorporating cultural influences as well as memory. 

The important aspects of our lives are perceived as stories and encoded as memories. Memories are personal accounts from an individual’s life that can either be recalled in a way that feels continuous or incoherent. What it means to be an individual with an identity, is to have the ability to create these new memories, recall them later, and fit them into your existing line of memories. The new memories must be compatible with the old memories, and they must all come together to form a cohesive picture of identity. The memories themselves must also be formed in an accurate manner, consistent with the psychological continuity theory, and they must fit into your preexisting narrative. These aspects of identity are crucial to an individual’s sense of self, and when discussing potential memory-altering technology physicians have a responsibility to understand and inform the patient of any possible consequences. They must take memory into account when discussing treatment, getting consent, and figuring out the best course of action. Although procedures that jeopardize a person’s memories are not yet among us, it is necessary to begin thinking of the effects they could have on a person’s identity while the technology is still being developed. The hybrid theory of identity is best suited to understand and handle the issues raised by the potential memory manipulating technology.

V. Objections

Hypothetically one could say the hybrid theory is too complex, and a person’s identity is not created with this many individual factors. However, identity is a complex entity made up of both the individual and the societal influences surrounding that individual. If you removed one piece of the hybrid theory (continuous mental states, self-narrative, or memory) the individual’s identity would either be flawed or incomplete. For example, if you removed the continuous mental states element it is likely that an individual who is delusional could construct an identity which is fictitious. He could have a self-narrative but it could be tainted with his delusions and inaccurate. He could even have memories contributing to his identity but the preciseness of those may be questionable, because he lacks the distinctive mental states that the psychological continuity theory provides. Adding the element of psychological continuity to the hybrid theory ensures that the narrative is reliable.

Next, if someone were to argue for the removal of the narrative element from the hybrid theory, it would leave a person with only their psychological processes and memories to construct an identity from. The person would exist within their own mind with no outside societal influence. The culture around us is evident in everything we do. Humans are impressionable beings, and when one is raised thinking a specific way they are often bound to thinking that way no matter how hard they try and change. We all live in a web that is influenced by the people around us, telling us how to speak, think, and act. The narrative theory allows for us and our identity to be shaped by the place we are living and the people surrounding us. It accounts for the societal influences because our biases can be present within the self-narrative. Removing the narrative element from the hybrid theory would be a mistake, because culture is crucial to who we are.

Lastly if someone were to argue for removing the memory component from the hybrid theory, I would refer them to the section above discussing Martha and the importance of memory. Memories not only shape our past self but also help inform our future actions and guide us in certain directions, so by removing memory one would be removing a crucial part of an individual’s past and future identity.

VI. Conclusion

In this paper we have discussed different theories of identity in depth: psychological continuity theory, narrative theory, but also the proposed hybrid theory. The hybrid theory overcomes the weaknesses of the individual theories and combines them to produce a more cohesive definition of identity. Memory plays an important role within a person’s identity, both helping them understand themselves and informing future decisions and acts. This cohesive theory of identity involving psychological processes, societal influences, and memory, is crucial to understanding ethical issues in neural engineering and in the active erasing of memories.