By Emma Fiala
McGill University associate professor of psychiatry, Dr. Alain Brunet, embarked on the monumental task of making 60 people forget something—and succeeded.
Over four to six sessions, volunteers read aloud from a typed script they had composed themselves—a first-person account of their breakup, with as many emotional details as possible—while under the influence of propranolol, a common and inexpensive blood pressure pill.
The point being to reactivate those traumatic memories and all of the difficult emotions they include.
Participants were then asked questions during the sessions—how did you feel; how do you feel now; is your memory different from last week—to judge whether the strength of their memories were decreasing due to memory reactivation while taking propranolol, as the researchers posited, or not.
Full results of the study have been submitted to a journal, according to the National Post; however, the Post also reports that Dr. Brunet has been hesitant to discuss the results due to the sheer speed and success of erasing specific memories.
The 30 participants “just couldn’t believe that we could do so much in such a small amount of time,” Brunet explained, adding:
“They were able to turn the page. That’s what they would tell us—‘I feel like I’ve turned the page. I’m no longer obsessed by this person, or this relationship’.”
So why is Dr. Brunet so hesitant to share the news about his own breakthrough? Well, it turns out the idea of entirely wiping out unpleasant memories is quite unsettling to him. The ability, on the cellular level, to search for and destroy specific brain cells associated with specific memories is “not going to come from my lab,” Brunet explained.
Ethically speaking, Brunet says that “as long as only one choice exists right now, and it’s toning down a memory, we feel on very solid and comfortable ground,” rather than having the ability to erase such an integral aspect of what makes us who we are. However, others are working on what Dr. Brunet won’t.
Brunet asks, “if one day you had two options—I can tone down your memory, or I can remove it altogether,