Memory and Identity

jp ii memory and identityThe title of this brief reflection is drawn from Pope Saint John Paul II’s final memoir, published in the year of his death, 2005, wherein he reflects upon various themes, especially in the light of the twentieth century and his own experiences.  A guaranteed excellent read.  However, I use his title to prompt our own reflection on the nature of memory, especially in light of developing technology I recently heard of in a documentary, by which memories, especially those that are painful or traumatic, may be erased from the brain.  Such stuff has provided the fodder of science fiction movies and stories from Blade Runner  and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to Robocop and the forgettable Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (none of them necessarily recommended viewing!  Although, two of these movies are based on very good short stories by the science fiction author Philip K. Dyck).  What was once fiction may now become reality.

There are various theories on the nature of memory.  Most of the current hypotheses, in our materialist culture, presume that memory is nothing more than neuronal activity; that is, memory is purely physical, stored in the brain itself.  These memories  may exist in a diffuse way throughout the cerebral cortex, or localized in deeper regions of the brain, such as the thalamus, where more emotionally significant memories are retained.  Theoretically, therefore, one could destroy specific neural connections to remove a bad memory.  After all, traumatic brain injury will often result in some level of amnesia.  We could, in theory, control such memory loss by surgical or chemical means, thereby removing specific neuronal connections and the memories associated with them.

Of course, in the Christian view (which means the real one) memory is more than physical; at its deepest level, our memories are intellectual and immaterial, ‘stored’ in the soul itself.  After all, I am sure that now Saint John Paul II in heaven recalls his life on earth!  Certainly, while we are this side of heaven, there is a material substrate to such memories, and access to them may be limited by physical damage to the brain, but, even in those with advanced Alzheimer’s, our ‘self’, our ‘identity’, remains in our souls, waiting for the resurrection, when all things will be restored in Christ.

Of course, this takes us beyond science, so let us remain on the material level, and presume such a technology of physical memory-deletion is possible (and, at the current stage of research, that is a big given):  Would we want, or should we want, to remove memories cause us great pain or sorrow?

Such a question raises serious ethical issues, for, as our late Holy Father implied, our memories form the most significant aspect of ‘who we are’, our identity, as persons.  To remove our memories, therefore, is to remove a part of our very selves.

There are hard cases, of course:  Victims of sexual abuse, or war crimes, or those who suffer the traumatic and sudden loss of a child.  Such memories inflict on those who hold them often a lifetime of debilitating suffering.

Yet should we remove such painful memories?  Or, perhaps, at least the emotional impact of the such memories?  But, as one ethicist asked, would we want a mother to forget the death of her child?  Or, perhaps, to recall the trauma, but without emotion?  Would not such an intervention be inhuman?

We all have painful, and also beautiful, memories; sometimes they are the same memory, seen from different vantage points, for God only permits evil to bring out of it a greater good.  Rather than try to remove such memories, the better way is to hold on to purify them, not to dwell morbidly on the bad, but to see the action of God’s providence in them, and not to linger obsessively on the good, but to see God’s gracious will in His favour towards us.

After all, the most important time, to paraphrase Saint Paul, is not the past or future, but the ‘now’, the present, which is the only ‘time’ that God Himself knows, He Who sees all things totum simul, all at once.  In heaven, we will see how all the acts, omissions and events of our life led to our eternal destiny.  To try to use technology to remove our past, as though it did not exist, is to mistrust this providence of God.  In the end, after the travails of this life, we will see how all of our memories, all of our joys and sorrows, gave glory to the living God, so long as we accept all things as coming from His hand.

Ocotober 31, 2014