90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

If You Could Pop A Pill To Forget, Would You?


We remember everything from the taste of our favorite ice cream flavor to the feeling of losing a loved one.

And new research in the works may help people forget painful memories with a drug.

People tend to think that our memories are just sitting in our brains, like some sort of file in a computer hard drive.

But researchers now say that’s all wrong. Our memories aren’t static, they’re constantly changing, because each time we recall a memory, we rebuild it from scratch.

Jonah Lehrer wrote about this research in a recent Wired magazine article:

Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed. “The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past,” [neuroscientist Joseph] LeDoux says. “Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.”

Lehrer also wrote about research that is helping people forget the pain associated with memories.

One technique is to give people beta-blockers, which inhibit emotional responses. The therapy requires people to recall the event while taking the beta-blocker. Since memories are rebuilt each time we recall them, the new memory would be free of the intense emotions. So, while a soldier might still remember a devastating battle, he could disassociate the emotion that led to debilitating post traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, the holy grail of memory research would be a pill that could wipe out a memory (or negative emotion) all together.

Lehrer says memory erasure would work by asking people to remember something, while they take a drug to block a protein that rebuilds memory. Since the protein needed to rebuilt the memory would be missing, the memory would cease to exist.

Lehrer says this type of research raises lots of ethical questions.

If our memories make us who we are, what does it mean to erase part of our memories. Are we deleting part of ourselves?

Fortunately, we won’t have to grapple with those issues for several years, since Lehrer says a so-called forgetting pill is still five to ten years from reality.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Dr. Nick

    Torturing animals is not science, it’s barbarism. Please, Robin, don’t glorify these vivisectionists with such uncritical exposure. There are alternatives: http://caat.jhsph.edu/

    As Gandhi said:“I abhor vivisection with my whole
    soul. All the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count
    as of no consequence.”

    Thank you.

    • Robert Riversong

      Unnecessary suffering is always to be avoided, but many would also say that eating animals is barbarism when, in fact, humans evolved to eat a variety of foodstuffs including the flesh of others – so nothing could be more natural.

  • Fpwilhelm

    Now that we can forget a memory could this lead to remembering repressed memories?

    • Robert Riversong

      What this research proves is what many have long known: that “repressed memories” are manufactured memories, often with the complicity and direction of the “therapist”.

  • Amanda R.

    Hello!  I did not use a pill, but EMDR and counceling to help me deal with a sexual abuse when I was young.  I realized that due to that one incident in my youth, many decisions I made in my adult life were not healthy.  I remember what happened, but the emotion is not attached.  I feel stronger for being able to process this.

  • Robert Riversong

    The purpose of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, which has been enormously successful with emergency personnel, is to immediately reprogram the traumatic experience in an emotionally safe environment so that the associations with negative emotions get over-ridden by supportive feelings.

  • X-Ray

    It seems no effective drug is free from side-effects. One can only wonder what the side effects are of a drug which rubs out memory and emotions.

    • Robert Riversong

      Hey, it’s less problematic than lobotomy ;-)

      • Ben

        And today we don’t have the great Walter Freeman, the lobotomist who performed thousands in the 1940′s, including his famous “ice pick” lobotomy which was performed with an ice pick inserted in the corner of the eye cavity.
        Those were the days. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oregon-Stream/100002120209443 Oregon Stream

    There’s certainly a lot of interesting ongoing research into the complexities of the brain. Presumably, the degree to which memories are modified depends on their type and emotional context. Apparently some are not subject to revision, like the facts, figures, and procedural details (some of which are fairly complicated) that professionals rely on to do their jobs. If those things were being altered/re-written, we’d be in trouble in fields like medicine and engineering.

  • Ben

    Another pill from Big Pharma for your problems, whether real or created by those working with Big Pharma to sell their “stuff”. And for your money, you get a bit extra. Those wonderful side effects they don’t like to mention.

    FAB of drugs:Don’t talk about drug side effects, talk about FAB Features Advantages and Benefits of the drugs.

    “And it seems to me perfectly in the cards that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing … a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods.” Aldous Huxley, 1959

    • Jojomama

      He mentioned beta blockers, which millions of people take daily with little side effects. This therapy could be as safe as taking a Motrin. 
      No medication or herbal concoction is without side effects outside of the therapeutic range, so given the right dose, it could potentially be a safe choice.

  • Ben

    This kind of science often reminds me of the research done by Dr. Jose DelGado, who worked on many projects involving the controlling of the actions of the mind. He also worked with the CIA for many years. The guy was a real piece of work.

    “The individual may think that the most important reality is his own existence, but this is only his personal point of view. This lacks historical perspective. Man does not have the right to develop his own mind. This kind of liberal orientation has great appeal. We must electronically control the brain. Someday armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.” Dr José Delgado,Director of NeuropsychiatryYale University Medical School Congressional Record,No. 26, Vol. 118 February 24, 1974

  • Lavada

    The Rolling Stones in the mid sixties or so had a song about such a problem called “Mother’s Little Helper”. How timely.

    What a drag it is getting old
    “Kids are different today,”
    I hear ev’ry mother say
    Mother needs something today to calm her down
    And though she’s not really ill
    There’s a little yellow pill
    She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
    And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day
    “Things are different today,”
    I hear ev’ry mother say
    Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
    So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
    And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
    And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day
    Doctor please, some more of these
    Outside the door, she took four more
    What a drag it is getting old
    “Men just aren’t the same today”
    I hear ev’ry mother say
    They just don’t appreciate that you get tired
    They’re so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
    So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
    And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight
    Doctor please, some more of these
    Outside the door, she took four more
    What a drag it is getting old
    “Life’s just much too hard today,”
    I hear ev’ry mother say
    The pusuit of happiness just seems a bore
    And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose
    No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
    They just helped you on your way, through your busy dying dayhttp://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/the_rolling_stones/mothers_little_helper.html

  • GEM

    I was sexually abused as a child – would I like these episodes erased, yes, but then the other subsequent memories, like why this relative was so hated later on, would no longer make sense. I can see this as a double-edged sword, not so simple to relieve the pain, since memories are more like hair woven into a French braid.

  • Guest

    Science can help us understand ourselves, fabricate pharmaceuticals and
    test them under empirical conditions regardless of whether it is the
    right thing to do or not. To think that this research will not be used beyond the seemingly benign purpose of helping people is fantasy. Scientific knowledge is not lost, but ethical knowledge is. Science is the best tool we have for obtaining knowledge, but this story points to the limitations of the human animal that uses it to service its own needs.

  • Sami

    I loved this story !  It really make you think about what’s ok to forget?  I have loved this song about memory too.  This is more about brain or head injury.  It’s on this album…The song is Photographic Soul!http://open.spotify.com/album/1UNAFyHg7dnquWlI7cbuLC

  • Simone

    Wow… A pill like that would be amazing. It could change my life completely. Every single night, I’m awake, thinking of when I was raped 3 years ago. Erasing that memory would stop the depression, anxiety, everything bad. There might be some unethical aspects of such a pill, but for people like me it would mean the world ! Please have it ready before the 5-10 years. My mind is killing me!

    Anyone know who to contact, if you’re willing to be a test-person?

    • Michelle

      There are other options available for you.  There are research based therapeuitc techniques such as EMDR and RRT..  Please make sure you are seeing a qualified therapist. 

  • Putu Yogi12

    Obat untuk menghilangkan semua ingatan orang yang sangat jahat dan tidak punya perasaan,apa nama obatnya tlng ksh tau obatnya dan harganya murah… jika ada tlong kirim / sms saya ke nomer ini 085266222284

  • LaDiDa

    regardless of the side effects i would love this pill… it would most definitely help me.

  • Joe Schmoe

    I would do literally anything to forget what happiness feels like. If I didn’t know I would likely be ok in the current hell I now live. People around me seem to think loving like this is acceptable, and I feel like if I didn’t know any better I would too.

  • http://darkangelights2009.tumblr.com/ darkangelights

    I need to forget alot! please give me this pill!

  • http://darkangelights2009.tumblr.com/ darkangelights
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 16 7 Comments

Kathy Gunst Explores Community Supported Agriculture

Kathy Gunst joins Cook's Illustrated executive food editor Keith Dresser at his CSA pickup and offers recipes for the seasonal CSA fare.

September 16 11 Comments

Remembering Jesse Winchester

Jimmy Buffett remembers his friend the late songwriter Jesse Winchester, whose posthumous album is being released today.

September 15 26 Comments

A Call To Reject Corporal Punishment As Part Of Black Culture

An incident of child abuse by an NFL player has raised questions about the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the African-American community.

September 15 27 Comments

Would You Pay To Get Your Kid Into A Top College?

A San Francisco company charges parents for a consulting package based on the odds their student will get into a certain university, with prices up to a million dollars.