Are We Made Of Memories?

The military is researching memory-erasing technology. Alison Winter delves into the ethical issues:

[W]orries [about memory erasure] draw their force from a deep-seated attachment to two related beliefs: first, that we are, in some ambiguous but important way, the accretion of our life experiences; and second, that those life experiences are perfectly preserved even if our ability to remember them is far from perfect. When Alzheimer’s disease patients lose significant amounts of memory, dismayed friends often say that their very selves have crumbled or faded away and that in some literal way they are “no longer themselves."

The thought here is not that people believe their memories are perfect — far from it. Common understandings of memory centrally involve the idea that memories are unreliable, fickle and capricious. But there is another belief about memory that has been articulated by many figures in memory research: that in some fundamental way, secreted within us are perfect records of past experiences, even if we might never access them consciously.