|The neuralyzer from Men in Black|
Wired: The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever by Jonah Lehrer
Scientific American: Erasing Painful Memories: Drug and Behavioral Therapies Will Help Us Forget Toxic Thoughts by Jerry Adler
The articles are beautifully written, full of interesting and thought-provoking questions, and obviously the product of a great deal of work. I think good science writing is really important and greatly value the work that writers like Jonah Lehrer and Jerry Adler do. However, I can't understand how these very clever, usually marvellous writers make the huge leap in this instance from the (albeit in themselves fascinating) findings in animal models to the putative selective erasure of the complex, multidimensional, highly interconnected ensemble of neural representations that constitutes a single human autobiographical memory.
This matters because many thousands of people suffer enormous anguish every day with the dreadful effects of post-traumatic stress or related conditions, and may have their hopes raised that a "forgetting pill" is just around the corner. It seems to me that this hype isn't justified based on current knowledge, although as this isn’t my area of specialist expertise, maybe I’m missing something. I had an interesting email conversation with Jonah Lehrer in which he was characteristically open to a number of my (hopefully constructive) criticisms. However, to find out whether I might have misunderstood the science, I asked someone who is an expert in this area, Dr Amy Milton from the University of Cambridge, to set things straight. Here’s her view: