INS Neuroethics Winning Essay on Identity and Erasing Memories

13th Jul 2017

The International Neuroethics Society (INS) holds an annual student/postdoc essay contest to promote the interest in neuroethics among those early in their academic careers. The 2016 winner, Kaitlyn McGlothlen, discusses identity and the ethical problem of actively erasing memories.

 “How do you define your identity?” is the opening question that Kaitlyn raises. There are several theories attempting to explain what our identity consists of and all of these theories have their advantages and weaknesses over one another. As recent findings in neuroscience suggest active erasing of memories is possible, an ethical issue arises. The author claims that erasing memories feels intuitively problematic to most of us. However, none of the leading identity theories seem to agree that it is.

The essay explores two leading definitions of identity – psychological continuity theory and narrative theory, mentioning their advantages and limitations. Psychological continuity theory fails to explain change in our identity throughout our lifetime, while narrative theory is lacking because it relies on the process of forming one’s narrative being accurate. Neither theory is sufficient for explaining how memory erasure might affect the sense of identity, the author suggests, as they do not take the importance of memories into consideration.

To assess this problem, both of the theories are put into a hybrid theory with an emphasis on the importance of memory. This proposed theory is more a more cohesive definition of identity and is more suitable to understand the ethical issues in neural engineering and in the active erasing of memories.


The full winning essay by Kaitlyn McGlothlen “Oops, There Goes My Childhood: Identity and Clinical Ethical Issues in the Selective Erasing of Memories” can be found on Dana website.

The BNA recently established a partnership with the INS. It offers 10% off joint membership along with many other benefits. More information can be found here.

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