The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is It Ethical to Erase Memories Using Electroconvulsive Therapy?

How would your tradition respond to the question, should we be tampering with our memories?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

From The Atlantic:

“ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is now being used to alter and destroy memories.

It may sound like fiction, like something out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but a recent study published in Nature found that ECT successfully ’impaired reconsolidation of episodic memories in humans.’ That’s to say, memories were partially, and in some cases almost entirely, erased from participants who underwent ECT.

“The lead researcher, Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and his colleagues found that by strategically timing ECT bursts—which induce seizures by passing current into the brain through electrode pads placed on the scalp—it is possible to target and disrupt patients’ memory of a disturbing episode.

“Should we be tampering with our memories? In order to answer this, one must first determine the value of a memory. If it is true that our actions, our personalities, our very notions of self are based on the experiences we have had and on the memories we have collected, then to delete our memories would be to destroy a part of ourselves.”

How would your tradition respond to the question, should we be tampering with our memories? 

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I’m assuming that question refers to someone whose recurring memory of a traumatic event has so impacted their life that it has impacted spiritual, physical, relational, emotional wholeness, such as that experienced after the violence of war, rape, or other assault. 

“A statement of the PCUSA affirms that ‘God may extend healing power to us in surprising and wholly unexpected means.’ If a person’s memories are preventing wholeness and flourishing of such as from PTSD from violence and if there is a treatment which would moderate or erase those memories as the source of disease, I believe my traditional would support the individual’s choice to pursue such an option— of course with full disclosure of possible side effects.

“The existence of such a technology requires utmost care in regulation to ensure it is not used for nefarious purposes and in conjunction with traditional therapies.

“I do not believe that my tradition would argue that employing ECT to erase memories would be to destroy a part of the sacred self.  If a limb is gangrenous, threatening life it is removed for the sake of survival of the whole person.  If an abscessed tooth prevents eating, it’s time for it to be extracted. Perhaps erasure of memories with ECT is an analogous situation.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“In my opinion this is one of the most challenging questions given to our panel. As a Unitarian Universalist I would normally provide my answer from a scientific lens but not with this question. My response comes from a highly cautious and compassionate heart for this topic. Cautious because historically electric shock therapy was used predominantly on women when they became ‘hysterical.’ This was an abusive practice to silence outspoken women; it was ethically and morally wrong and cannot be repeated. We must proceed cautiously not to abuse future patients.

“And from a compassionate heart because I pastor to some people who live with memories of traumatic experiences or PTSD. Thinking of giving them any relief from their nightmares and memories would be life changing. I think of young people who served our country in the Vietnam war who now as older adults still struggle with the images of their past. Today these veterans serve as living reminders of the atrocity of war. I would support erasing their suffering, but our greater society must remember the horrible mistakes of our past so that we do not repeat them in future.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“One can easily see that if this procedure is perfected there is significant opportunity for abuse. But let’s suppose for a moment that it’s highly regulated and used only in cases that are scrutinized by medical ethicists and therapists. I certainly have plenty of memories that I would love to vanish into the ether, but none of them keeps me from functioning in daily life.  This is probably because all of them have to do with me being a knucklehead. But it pains me greatly to think about those who are psychologically devastated due to abuse, war or torture. I will say that researchers have found great success in treating veterans with PTSD. I would hope that before a drastic treatment such as memory modification would be tried as a last resort.

“In the article it indicates that perhaps more than the memory targeted would be affected. This is similar to chemo, which kills good cells along with the bad in hopes of a cure.

“From a Hindu perspective, I believe there would be general consensus that in some situations it would be appropriate. Our scriptures teach that we are not the body, the mind or the personality. We are pure soul at our core. So, if changes are made to any of these temporary sheathes that cover the soul the ultimate ‘I’ is untouched.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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