Amnesia Is the New Bliss

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Late last November, an episode of 60 Minutes examined the potentiality of a prescription drug called propranolol. Reported by Lesley Stahl, this was the first time I’d ever heard of propranolol, and I haven’t seen any major news source mention the drug since that evening. This, I suppose, is not surprising; in fact, I suspect many people stopped reading this column the moment they hit the word propranolol and didn’t immediately recognize what it was. But propranolol might be the most philosophically vexing pharmaceutical since Prozac: It openly questions the significance of reality. This seems wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Propranolol is the closest society has come to making the 1996 film Brain Candy seem prophetic.

Understanding propranolol begins with understanding adrenaline, specifically how adrenaline impacts memory. Try to recall the most intense moments of your life (car accidents, fistfights, over-the-top sexual encounters, et cetera). In most cases, you will remember the details from those events far more vividly than less meaningful, more conventional episodes from everyday existence. This is (at least partially) the product of adrenaline; the cerebral rush of adrenaline that accompanies intense circumstances burns those memories into your brain.1 Adrenaline makes us remember things.

When humankind was young, this process offered a sociobiological evolutionary advantage: If Early Man got especially freaked out by a tiger attack, that hardwiring taught him to stay out of tiger country. However, tigers are no longer a pressing issue in Modern Man’s life. Today, adrenaline more often makes Modern Man remember the events he’d most like to forget. This is why we have disorders like posttraumatic stress: Many people (and particularly war veterans) cannot psychologically overcome the worst moments from their life; the experiences never stop seeming vivid. Adrenaline has galvanized memories they don’t want to recall.

This brings us to propranolol.

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~ by searching4alpha on October 27, 2007.

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