A new study published in the journal Nature will challenge us to define what mental health really means. Researchers found that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – used to treat severe cases of major depression – can also potentially erase troubling memories.
ECT induces seizures in the brain. It isn’t clear why it works to alleviate symptoms of major depression, but it is effective. One of the side effects is memory loss for events very close in time to when ECT is performed. But now, it looks like ECT may be able to obliterate memories that have lasted a long time but are brought to the surface again just before having the procedure done.
This sounds like the stuff of science fiction. In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple no longer in love decide to erase their memories of one another. And in a novel I wrote called Murder Suicide, the main character decides to erase his memory of all relationships and begin life anew, free of all prior interpersonal conflicts.
The research published in Nature was conducted with people undergoing ECT for major depression. They were told very troubling stories—one, for example, about a child whose feet must be amputated. A week later, just prior to receiving ECT, they were asked to recall these stories. The idea was that remembering the details would shift the story into a very recent form of recall, where it might be temporarily unstable.
The results were that the ECT made people unable to recall the story. In other words, their very graphic and troubling recollections, which had persisted for a week, were gone after having seizures induced.
This may mean that people who have gone through terrible trauma in war or in accidents can have the memory of those events removed by bringing them to mind and then using ECT to “erase” them.
What this also means, however, is that our notion about what it means to have lived and to have a life story may be challenged. If we erase adversity—even trauma—from the minds of those who object to it, won’t we also be erasing the potential for great leaders who have overcome trauma the old fashioned way? If we suggest that shocking people out of their anxiety and sadness is the right way to “get over it,” won’t we be belittling the concept of human empathy, through which we commiserate with the suffering of others?
Are we on the road to extinguishing another layer of reality and truth, following in the footsteps of the fakery of Facebook and other social media?
Psychiatrists and spiritual thinkers like the late M. Scott Peck warned that seeking to avoid all adversity is the road to weakness and to a willingness to let evil people and ideas overcome us. I think we are on that road and that our search to feel no pain will result in our inability to feel much of anything, including pleasure.
Our Achilles’ heel as a culture, and perhaps as a species, is our unwillingness to suffer.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.