Apr 6, 2009

Erasing Memories and Forgetting Bad Habits

Some tantalizing new research (admittedly, in its early stages) suggests that scientists may be able to tinker with human memories in ways that we've never been able to before.

From this New York Times article:

"Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems."

Understanding that the resesarch is still preliminary, the most immediate implication of this from a criminal justice perspective is the idea that bad habits often contribute to recidivism and criminal activity more generally.

“'This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities and raises huge ethical issues,' said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. 'On the one hand, you can imagine a scenario in which a person enters a setting which elicits traumatic memories, but now has a drug that weakens those memories as they come up. Or, in the case of addiction, a drug that weakens the associations that stir craving.'”

Could this drug help to alter the memories that promote criminal behavior? Could this research alter the landscape of drug addiction and crime -- and, by implication, interrupt the cycles of addiction and incarceration that are so prevalent among offenders?