In this NPR blog, Barbara J. King reflects upon potential extensions of Susumu Tonegawa et al’s recent experiment in creating a fear-based memory in mice. While the ability to physically alter memory could have benefits (e.g. healing PTSD), King raises important ethical and material complications. She notes the nature of memory as unreliable, and considers the possible evolutionary benefit of this: creativity and problem-solving. Also, and most interesting to me, she pushes beyond the seeming boundaries of neuroscience and the isolation of the brain to consider the embodied, embedded nature of memories, existing in our flesh and “our social networks.” Memory (and consciousness, and social interaction, and existence itself) is not merely in our neurons. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Canguilhem:
“To act, it is necessary at least to localize….As if one could determine a phenomenon’s essence apart from its conditions! As if conditions were a mask or frame which changed neither the face nor the picture!” (from The Normal and the Pathological)
Canguilhem’s localization is not that of neuroscience, but of seeing a being in specific context (as opposed to a broad definition of normal/pathological). The ethics of tinkering with the brain must be understood within the contexts — the conditions — of our bodies and lives.