Could we someday “erase” the memories of workplace bullying?

In “Erasing bad memories,” a piece for the February 2015 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor, Stacy Lu examines leading edge research on future possibilities for treating memories of traumatic experiences that fuel post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions:

When we think back on our lives, we generally try to dwell on good times and come to terms with bad. But for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias, just one intractable and unwelcome memory can influence a lifetime of perceptions, emotions and behavior, despite therapists’ best efforts.

But thanks to better imaging technology, neuroscientists and psychologists are able to explore the neural mechanisms by which memories are made and stored. And their research has uncovered several physiological interventions — including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology — that appear to help destabilize fearful memories, a finding that could lead to more effective, targeted psychotherapy in the future.

While practitioners today rely solely on patient reports, “in years to come, neuroscience will inform clinical practice,” says Stefan Hofmann, PhD, who directs the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. “We will use both biological and neurological measures to give us clues as to treatment.”

It’s an informative, scientifically detailed article on how fearful memories are formed, how they may be changed or eradicated, and how lifestyle factors relate to softening their impact.

Workplace bullying and PTSD

Many targets of severe workplace bullying report or show symptoms consistent with PTSD (go here for Mayo Clinic description), and that link has been observed and accepted by workplace bullying researchers for some time. Anecdotally speaking, post-event trauma constitutes one of the foremost challenges in helping workplace bullying targets to fully reclaim their lives and re-enter the labor market.

Developments and breakthroughs in PTSD research and treatment are thus especially important to these individuals and their families, and the work discussed by Stacy Lu raises both possibilities and concerns. All things being equal, presumably many, if not most, people suffering from PTSD would willingly undergo treatment to erase the memory of the traumatic experience that prompted their symptoms, assuming that the symptoms would disappear with the memories. But some of the potential treatments mentioned by Lu, “including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology,” go beyond the less physically invasive counseling modes, especially if we presume that any drug capable of causing someone to erase a specific memory is made of awfully powerful stuff.

In addition, there are other important considerations associated with any attempt to “erase” a memory. For example, some aptly note the role of bad or difficult memories in building our wisdom and resilience. Others raise more philosophical questions about the role of memory in defining our lives and collective humanity. That said, I’d suggest that for many sufferers of PTSD, these would be trifling concerns, and understandably so.

In other words, we’re dealing with significant but potentially risky treatments here. However, the high stakes involved — i.e., restoring a sense of peace and security to those suffering from the effects of psychological trauma — justify continued, responsible research, accompanied by hopes that we can find more effective ways to help people dealing with these terrible conditions.

3 responses

  1. This is a brilliant point, dear David:

    “In addition, there are other important considerations associated with any attempt to “erase” a memory. For example, some aptly note the role of bad or difficult memories in building our wisdom and resilience.”

    I suspect that many activists find courageous ways to embrace—rather than erase—difficult memories. That is, they learn how to use these experiences to work for constructive change in the world.

    Thank YOU SO MUCH for your AMAZING blog!

    • Thank you, Linda, for all of your encouragement, not to mention your critically important leadership in advancing dignity for all!

      Your comment takes us one level deeper into this conversation. Putting it directly, what’s the difference between a bad experience that yields lessons and a desire to support a movement, vs. one so traumatizing that an individual is better off creating some distance from it? In the workplace anti-bullying movement, I see both types. Some will harness their experience, however terrible, to become advocates. Others may want to participate, but at some point wisely step back. I have said to many that it’s completely okay to distance one’s self; they’re not letting anyone down by not becoming an activist. It’s a very personal thing.

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