Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel warns against drugs that erase memory

So scientists have just made a new discovery: there is a way to erase memory. This is according to reports that neuroscientists at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn have found that a single dose of an experimental drug can, in laboratory animals, block the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of what it has learned.

The concept seems interesting since this procedure, taken to the extreme, would aim at changing the lives of many people. It promises to resolve our problems, relieve our pains and clear away our anxiety. How? Quite simply by removing from our consciousness what disturbs us, overwhelms us, hurts us.

At first glance, these researchers should be congratulated. After all, they are working for the good of others. If these others - be they rich or poor, educated or ignorant, young or old - have suffered, and if the memory of this suffering upsets them and harms their physical or mental well-being, all they may need to do now is expunge it from their mind.

Yet the concept of forgetting - not as an illness, but as a remedy - is in fact not all that new. Ancient civilizations had already thought of it. There are tales about a river (the Lena), remarkable for the powers of its waters to help people to forget.

Though people remain attached to their memories, sometimes they want to dispose of them. Rather ordinary examples prove the point. A trip to the dentist, for example, can make a patient abruptly forget that his teeth were aching. Or the passenger at sea who suffers from pangs of seasickness and swears that he will never board a boat again, only to forget as soon as the waves subside. Likewise a woman forgets the painful hours of her last delivery so as to once again be able to make love.

Is it to respond to this restorative need to forget what bothers, irritates and wounds us that scientists offer this soothing discovery?

With all due respect for their good intentions, I admit that the Jew in me has doubts about the repercussions, as well as the effectiveness of this remedy. I would even say that it is precisely its potential effectiveness that disturbs me most.

I belong to a tradition that orders me to remember the history of my people since its origins and throughout upheavals both joyous and miserable. On the evening of Passover I say, "We all were the Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt." On the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, I am supposed to be in mourning, as if it had just happened yesterday. "Remember" and "do not forget" are biblical commandments that transcend the ages. And even more so for ours, for understandable reasons both historic and moral in nature.

The authors and followers of the heinous "Final Solution" were guilty not only of their unutterable crimes, but also of the will to erase their traces from the memory of others. Indeed they killed their victims two times: first with guns or in the gas chambers, and then by obliterating their memory. Thus the desire of survivors and those who bear witness for them to deprive the enemy of that second victory. If the civilized world allowed the crimes in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur to happen, it is because the lessons of Auschwitz and Treblinka have not been learned. And these lessons have not been learned quite simply because, for many reasons, the civilized world would rather not know.

This is why I am somewhat hesitant to trust the proposed therapeutic means to use forgetting as a tool for healing. Once forgetting has begun, where and when should it stop? Once we risk conducting such procedures in the medical field, they may well show up in the economic, social and political realm as well. The chance of honorable intentions being abused unfortunately remains, always and everywhere.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but I cannot help it. I am incapable of forgetting that I belong to a singularly traumatized generation. (NYDailyNews)

Click here to read the entire article at the NY Daily News.

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