Ayesha Ahmad: Should we erase trauma memories?

Bio: Currently, I am teaching at University College London, U.K. at the Medical School.
My background is in Philosophy, and my PhD was entitled ‘Metaphysics in Scientific Medicine: The Making of the Human Embryo’. I specialise in medical ethics, and am a member of the Clinical Ethics Committee at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Primarily, I am interested in cultural values in medicine, and this is a strand I develop as part of an international research collaboration funded project on disaster and humanitarian medicine ethics. I have given invited lectures to the International Committee of Military Medicine in Switzerland and the Africa Health Congress in South Africa. I have a research link to South Africa.
In parallel, I studied Psychoanalysis at post-graduate level and specialised in trauma, particularly effects of war and torture. I have published on the phenomenology of trauma, and also combine with ethics, in particular, cross-cultural applicability of PTSD and ethical issues surrounding the medical/psychiatric examination of torture victims.
My areas of interest are cultural values and religious beliefs in medical ethics, clinical ethics committees, paediatric and neonatal ethics.

Abstract: Should we erase trauma memories?

In this lecture, I discuss ethical issues surrounding the possibility of the erasure or deletion of trauma evoking memories. Contemporary psychiatric practice and advancements in neuro-ethics are providing greater insight and detail into the nature of our memory and the effects of psychological trauma on our well-being. Since the Vietnam war, the diagnostic category of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has led to the pathologicalisation of trauma and given atrocities such as disasters, humanitarian crisis’, and war, our societies face trauma on both a collective and individual scale. However, the experience of trauma is most typically constructed as an individual phenomenon – as a pathological burden affecting our self and our identity of who we want to be. Thus, appeals to a ‘cure’ or remedy for traumatic experiences are both topical and controversial since the retrieval of our memories is often thought to constitute a defining part of who we are.

To explore the debate, I will present on the nature of trauma, and whether there are virtues in trauma for our human – existential – experience. This is particularly pertinent when there are political ramifications for remembering and/ or forgetting a trauma, and that there could be a functional element to the recognition of trauma as a way of forming a legacy.

I will then introduce some of the potential modifications to our memory that modern pharmacology and neuroscience can offer to the trauma victim. I will contrast and relativise against other therapeutic methods for trauma such as prayer and community support. Then, I will argue, primarily, that a trauma is unable to be isolated on an individual level, and furthermore, that the erasure of trauma memories does not constitute an enhancement of our potential of whom we can become as persons – rather it inhibits our awareness and responsibility.