Friday, March 20, 2009

The only thing we have to fear... fear itself. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children have made an interesting discovery in medical science. By obliterating the lateral amygdala region in the brains of mice, memories of fear are erased. The researchers emphasize that while the fear response associated with the memory is expunged, the memory itself remains intact. This could be useful, they explain, in cases of a severe trauma - car accident, war, etc. - which leads to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You wouldn't want to completely get rid of all aspects of a memory," says Dr. Michael Salter, head of the Neurosciences & Mental Health program at the hospital.

"To help people with these kinds of post-traumatic stress disorders ... you might just want to minimize the emotional association between the memory and the highly disruptive and negative emotions that people have in this context."

Source: The Toronto Star

While I can appreciate the intentions, I have serious reservations about the therapy. Firstly, society greatly overestimates our understanding of the human body. We might understand generally which regions affect which functions, and we might understand microscopically which ions lead to cell signalling... but virtually everything in between is a mystery. Poking around in the brain is always a risky procedure, and I would think that an external therapy (such as counselling) continues to be much safer than an internal therapy (such as surgery) when it comes to something as intricate as the human brain if the choice is for expediency rather than necessity.

He says the research may well conjure "Orwellian" notions of thought control, "but that's not really the goal of this. The idea would be (to use it) in a therapeutic way."

Secondly, no matter what the intention, once we start manipulating our very minds, the door is opened to all manner of abuse. "Go ahead - murder that person, torture that inmate. I know it's scary, but we'll take care of that fear afterwards for you." While it might seem an archaic argument to stand in the way of scientific discovery, I'm just emphasizing that we need not only to consider our own intentions, but also the consequences of our discoveries on others. Brain manipulation, in my opinion - especially given our limited understanding of said organ - is a tricky can of worms... and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.


sandlot said...

"memories of fear are erased. The researchers emphasize that while the fear response associated with the memory is expunged, the memory itself remains intact".

Hrm. Then what feeling would replace the feeling of fear?

Furthermore, i think that memories of fear doesn't necessarily need to be detrimental. For example, as a kid you're told not to touch a hot stove. Being a mischievous kid, you go ahead and touch it anyways, thereby, burning your hand. As such, your memory of touching the stove will probably be one associated with the fear of being burnt.

The benefit of this "memory of fear" is that it could potentially deter you from carrying out that action again. If we were to remove the fear from this memory, wouldn't there be a greater possibility of repeating the action?

Obviously, i can see some benefits to removal of this emotion (i.e in instances of rape or where PTSD occurs)... but it would only apply to extraordinary cases.

Deep stuff for 1am in the morning. Haha.

a_ndy said...

I think the idea is that no feeling replaces the fear. You still recall the event, but the emotional ties are severed... kind of like watching it happen to somebody else.

But as you mentioned, the technique could probably be exploited to help people repeat all sorts of injurious (and deeply fear invoking) actions.