Commentary

The Jewel in the Lotus: A Meditation on Memory for Veterans Day 2019

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How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life?

Elie Wiesel1


 

References

On the 11th day of the 11th month, we celebrate Veterans Day (no apostrophe because it is not a day that veterans possess or that belongs to any individual veteran).2,3 Interestingly, the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have web pages correcting any confusion about the meaning of Memorial Day and Veterans Day so that the public understands the unique purpose of each holiday. Memorial Day commemorates all those who lost their lives in the line of duty to the nation, whereas Veterans Day commemorates all those who have honorably served their country as service members. While Memorial Day is a solemn occasion of remembering and respect for those who have died, Veterans Day is an event of gratitude and appreciation focused on veterans still living. The dual mission of the 2 holidays is to remind the public of the debt of remembrance and reverence we owe all veterans both those who have gone before us and those who remain with us.

Memory is what most intrinsically unites the 2 commemorations. In fact, in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.2 Yet memory is a double-edged sword that can be raised in tribute to service members or can deeply lacerate them. Many of the wounds that cause the most prolonged and deepest suffering are not physical—they are mental. Disturbances of memory are among the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Under its section on intrusive cluster, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists “recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s).” The avoidance cluster underscores how the afflicted mind tries to escape itself: “Avoidance of or efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s).”4

PTSD was first recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis in DSM-III in 1980, and since then VA and DoD have devoted enormous resources to developing effective treatments for the disorder, most notably evidence-based psychotherapies. Sadly ironic, the only psychiatric disorder whose etiology is understood has proved to be the most difficult to treat much less cure. As with most serious mental illnesses, some cases become chronic and refractory to the best of care. These tormented individuals live as if in a twilight zone between the past and the present.

Memory and war have a long history in literature, poetry, and history. Haunting memories of PTSD are found in the ancient epics of Homer. On the long treacherous journey home from sacking Troy, Odysseus and his army arrive in the land of the Lotus-eaters, where native sweet fruit induces a state of timeless forgetfulness in which torment and tragedy dissolve along with motivation and meaning.5 Jonathan Shay, VA psychiatrist and pioneer of the Homer-PTSD connection, suggested the analogy between the land of the Lotus-eaters and addiction: Each is a self-medication of the psychic aftermath of war.6

But what if those devastating memories could be selectively erased or even better blocked before they were formed? Although this solution may seem like science fiction, research into these possibilities is in reality science fact. Over the past decades, the DoD and the VA have sought such a neuroscience jewel in the lotus. Studies in rodents and humans have looked at the ability of a number of medications, most recently β blockers, such as propranolol, to interfere with the consolidation of emotionally traumatic memories (memory erasure) and disrupting their retention once consolidated (memory extinction).7 While researchers cannot yet completely wipe out a selected memory, like in the movie Star Trek, it has been shown that medications at least in study settings do reduce fear and can attenuate the development of PTSD when combined with psychotherapy. Neuroscientists call these more realistic alterations of recall memory dampening. Though these medications are not ready for regular clinical application, the unprecedented pace of neuroscience makes it nearly inevitable that in the not so distant future some significant blunting of traumatic memory will be possible.

Once science answers in the affirmative the question, “Is this intervention something we could conceivably do?” The next question belongs to ethics, “Is this intervention something we should do even if we can?” As early as 2001, the President’s Council on Bioethics answered the latter with “probably not.”

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