Rewriting my Autobiography: Me, Myself, and (possibly) a Different ‘I’
By: Cynthia Aoki
October 16, 2007
I’ve always wanted to write my own autobiography. Maybe it’s
narcissistic, but I thought it would be a good chance for me to think
back, reflect, introspect, and remember both the good and bad things
that happened to me throughout my life. I could then maybe figure out
what went right, and in some cases, what went horribly wrong. But I
told myself that I would save this personal task until I was older and
also until I had enough stories and experiences to share and write
about. Otherwise, if I wrote my autobiography today, it would be a
story about a girl named Cynthia, who went to school, who then decided
to go to more school.
I then came across McAdams’ “Life Story Theory” of identity  and
realized that I didn’t have to wait until I was old and experienced to
write my autobiography. I was already in the midst of writing one and
in fact, I had been writing and contributing to this autobiography my
whole life. According to McAdams, the individual is the primary author
of his or her autobiographical narratives and the individual’s memories
link together the past, the present, and the future in order to provide
a sense of identity and also to provide a sense of purpose for one’s
thoughts and behaviours.
This means that all the memories that I formed (both consciously and
unconsciously) have helped to provide me with my sense of identity and
that I’m continuously evaluating my experiences and integrating them
into the larger narrative of my life.
But what would happen if I experienced something so horrifically
terrible that I didn’t want it to form part of my life story. Would I
have the option of ensuring that I no longer remember this event and
that the memory of the event no longer forms part of my autobiography?
If so, and I can start actively meddling with my autobiography, would this change who I am?
Memory and Drugs
Because of the importance of memory and its role in defining one’s
identity, scientists in the realm of psychology, neurology, and
neuroscience have been investigating methods of enhancing or preserving different types of memory. 
More recently, scientists have started to focus on developing pharmacological agents that inhibit or dampen
the strength of memory formation and recall. These memory dampening
agents are currently being investigated for the treatment of post
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD and Autobiographical Memories
PTSD is a psychiatric anxiety disorder that can develop in response
to traumatic experiences.  One hallmark characteristic of this
disorder is the alternation between re-experiencing and avoiding
trauma-related memories. In some cases, the disorder can be so
debilitating that the individual can no longer function in society due
to the involuntary and continuous recall of the horrific event.
Currently, researchers are investigating the interaction between
autobiographical memories and PTSD. According to Bernsten (2001),
traumatic memories are important in that they become reference points
to other experiences in one’s autobiographical memory
database. More specifically, traumatic memories become significant
landmarks, which represent a major threat that is perceived by
individuals with PTSD. 
By inhibiting the formation of certain autobiographical memories
with the use of these memory dampening agents, the potential formation
of these important landmarks may be circumvented.
Research has shown in both animal and human studies that emotionally
arousing experiences are better remembered than those that are
emotionally neutral.  Arousal is dictated by the level of adrenaline
in the body; a higher level of adrenaline results in increased arousal,
and therefore, stronger memory formation. Propranolol, which is already
being prescribed for the treatment of hypertension, is used to block
the effects of adrenaline. Scientists hypothesize that propranolol
could help to dampen the recall of traumatic experiences by dampening
arousal. Propranolol is currently being tested in multi-centre clinical
trials for the treatment of PTSD.
More interestingly, researchers have recently shown that propranolol can also blunt previously formed memories
in humans.  In a double blind, randomized study, persons with
chronic PTSD were asked to recall their traumatic experiences. The mere
recall of these previously experienced traumatic events caused
adrenaline to be released and resulted in increased arousal. Upon
experiencing arousal, half of the participants were administered
propranolol; the other half were administered a placebo. Results showed
that propranolol retroactively blunted the recall of previously formed traumatic memories.
Once approved for the treatment of PTSD, what would be the legal implications of using these agents in society?
Propranolol is known as a “beta-blocker” and was developed in the
1950s and has been prescribed for the treatment of hypertension since
the 1970s. In both volunteer studies  and clinical trials  the
use of beta blockers was found to impair memory recall. Interestingly,
a similar dose (120 mg-160mg/day) is being prescribed for both the
treatment of hypertension and for the treatment of memory dampening.
 Results from these experiments suggest that individuals who are
prescribed propranolol for the treatment of hypertension may be subject
to memory impairment; perhaps without their knowledge or consent. Of
concern to the legal system is that the reliability and accuracy of the
testimonies given by these individuals taking propranolol will be
called into question. When deliberating future cases, it will be
important for Canadian courts to be mindful of the potential effects
that propranolol and similar drugs could have on a witness’s testimony.
Another legal issue arising from the use of these agents is the
extent of informed consent that would be required when prescribing
these memory dampening drugs. After experiencing a traumatic event,
individuals will likely be rushed to the emergency room in order to be
treated for both mental and physical distress. Upon reaching the
emergency room, a tending physician may recommend the treatment of
propranolol in order to help minimize the chances of developing PTSD in
the future. Despite being informed of the potential risks and
uncertainties associated with these agents, it is questionable whether
individuals taking these drugs would be in a legitimate position to
give their informed consent because 1) their decision making skills
would be significantly compromised as they are in times of distress
, and 2) they would not know the potential role these dampened
memories would have played in their future lives and identities.
Some Final Thoughts
Currently, memory dampening agents are not available to the general
public. The quickly advancing field of neuroscience, however, may be
able to provide new, more specific, and safer agents to help dampen the
painful memories associated with traumatic events. In the near future,
some of these newer technologies could be potent enough to allow for
memory deletion to occur. Recently, the drug, U0126 (not yet
available in humans), was able to selectively delete a particular
fear-induced memory in rats.  Perhaps these memory deleting agents
will become available for use in humans.
In conclusion, it will be necessary for the courts and the
government to be informed of all of these new pharmacological
developments so that they will be in a legitimate position to weigh
both the legal and social implications of using these interventions in
Some Final Final Thoughts
By the time I get around to writing an autobiography, I could have
gone through some experiences that may have tempted me to take one of
these memory dampening agents and artificially blunt some of my
Maybe it’s just me, but if I do decide to write an autobiography, I
want to be able to look back and remember both the good and bad times;
the times I’ve laughed and sobbed. I want to be confident that the
memories I’m recalling and writing about are genuine and that my
memories aren’t pharmaceutically modified in any way, shape, or form.
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