We all have moments in our lives that we'd rather forget. Drunken conversations with coworkers, mom walking in on you while jerking off, that summer spent reading On the Road…
Well, all that pales in comparison to suffering from PTSD. People who have suffered a trauma that they cannot process or cope with generally feel powerless and vulnerable, and often suffer from emotional and physical complaints like stress, aggression, and insomnia.
Only half of all PTSD sufferers are rehabilitated after extensive therapy. The other half are stuck with a syndrome that can make their lives unbearable. For those guys, the only solution seems to be to erase that traumatic memory completely.
That sounds more dramatic than it actually is. Edward Meloni, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard, has come up with a new method that uses xenon gas—a noble gas that is famous on YouTube for making your voice deeper—to help people forget their traumas.
Meloni tested his method on rats that were taught a certain fear by being shown specific images while getting short electric shocks. The next day the rats were shown the same images, which caused them to sweat and got their heart rate up. "But when we administered xenon gas, a gas that antagonizes the NMDA receptors (where fear comes from), the rats seemed to forget their fear," says Meloni. "We hope that the FDA approves this soon, so we can start human trials within a year."
The idea that you can erase a memory is as thrilling as it is terrifying. What if something goes wrong? Meloni argues that it's not as dramatic as some films and sci-fi novels would have you believe. "Research shows that xenon gas can remove the emotional charge of a traumatic memory, but not the memory itself. The chance that memories disappear completely is pretty slim."
But just because it's a slim chance, doesn't mean that it couldn't happen. Memories are what make us who we are, so if they disappear, you can come out of treatment a completely different person. Meloni seems less panicked about this than I am. "Even if the memory does disappear completely, I'd still want to use the method in some cases."
According to the professor, xenon gas is harmless—it's already being used for all kinds of purposes, including anesthesia. Furthermore, the drug would only be used on the most extreme cases, on people who can't be helped with conventional treatment. "Since my study has been in the media, I've been getting hundreds of e-mails and phone calls every day from people who want to get rid of their trauma at any cost," Meloni says. According to Meloni, opponents of the treatment don't know what people who are traumatized go through. "You have to realize that your whole life is ruined after a trauma like that. Consequently, you often make the wrong choices, which can lead to even more problems."
Supposing traumas can be completely forgotten, what kind of effects would that have on our society? I asked Professor Douwe Draaisma, who specializes in the nature and workings of the human memory.
"In ethical literature you often get the example of the 'forgetting pill'—a pill that erases your last memory. Suppose a rape victim takes one of those pills, then the consequences for the perpetrator could be less severe," says Draaisma. "Or even worse: the rapist could force the victim to take the pill. That is one of the dilemmas that treatments like these bring up."
That all seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but Draaisma told me that something similar has already happened. "An autistic girl was caught shoplifting, and slashed someone with a pair of scissors. In this case the perpetrator ended up traumatized and suffered from numerous PTSD symptoms. She had to be committed, and the doctors gave her an EMDR treatment to help her deal with the trauma." The perpetrator no longer felt the emotional burden of what she had done, but you can wonder what that means for the punishment that he or she should receive.
That scientists and ethicists are still debating the matter as if they're dealing purely in hypotheticals is strange. I came across the website heriondetoxeurope.com, and apparently there is a doctor in Belgrade, Dr. Vorobiev, who's been doing xenon gas treatments for a while now. His clinic mainly focuses on British people looking to get rid of their drug addiction on the cheap. Dr. Vorobiev did not respond to my attempts to get in touch, but Meloni was overjoyed when I told him about Vorobiev's practice. "Maybe we can work with the Serbians to test if it really works!" he said.
Meloni's enthusiasm may have something to do with the fact that in the United States, at least 22 war veterans commit suicide every day. Some vets suffering from PTSD use MDMA as treatment, while others find solace in an insane party mansion filled with strippers and Juggalos. Maybe drastic times call for drastic measures—even if that means going full Eternal Sunshine and attempting to erase someone's memory completely.