To remember, or not to remember? Potential impact of memory modification on narrative identity, personal agency, mental health, and well-being

Bioethics 35 (9):891-899 (2021)
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Memory modification technologies (MMTs)—interventions within the memory affecting its functions and contents in specific ways—raise great therapeutic hopes but also great fears. Ethicists have expressed concerns that developing and using MMTs may endanger the very fabric of who we are—our personal identity. This threat has been mainly considered in relation to two interrelated concerns: truthfulness and narrative self‐constitution. In this article, we propose that although this perspective brings up important matters concerning the potential aftermaths of MMT utilization, it fails to tell the whole story. We suggest that capturing more tangible potential consequences of MMT use, namely, its psychological ramifications is crucial both in ethical considerations and in making decisions regarding the permissibility of such interventions. To this end, we first examine what current MMTs are capable of and what are the prospects of emerging MMTs. Subsequently, we outline the relationship between memory and personal identity; specifically, we indicate that concepts of self‐defining memories and narrative identity are crucial to considering how MMTs may influence one's psychological functioning. On this basis, we analyze potential consequences of narrative disruption that may be the result of the use of MMTs; more precisely, we consider its potential effects on mental health, well‐being, and personal agency, and outline the ethical dilemmas that decision‐makers face in this context. We conclude by considering the broader cultural context that may have influence on policymaking regarding permissibility of memory modification interventions.

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Przemysław Zawadzki
Jagiellonian University


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