The Science of TFC
In Memento Nora, Nora goes to TFC—a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic—to “forget her cares,” which in her case is the haunting memory of a bombing she witnessed while out shopping. In her world, she (and everyone else) can take one little pill and go on like it never happened.
At the TFC , the doctor explains to Nora how the pill works:
“Okay,” he said, putting his pad down on his desk. “I might as well give you my new patient spiel.” He laughed, more to himself than to us.
Great. A lecture.
“Our brains distinguish between emotional and other types of memories. When you experience fear—or any strong emotion—your body excretes adrenaline. That’s what makes your heart race when you’re scared. Adrenaline also opens up your brain cells.” He held out his pink little hands palms up, fingers splayed, as if ready to catch something big. “Your brain cells are ready to snatch up that event and make strong connections between each other.” He meshed his fingers together and tugged. “Voilà. A traumatic memory.”
He held a hard knot of fat, pink wriggling fingers in front of me.
“Ameliorol—this pill I’m going to give you—keeps that from happening.” His fingers slid apart. He shook them out as if they pained him. “I’m sure this kind of memory had some evolutionary advantage in our species, but frankly it doesn’t pay to remember that kind of thing today.” He smiled rather sadly in my general direction.
“Wouldn’t it work better if you gave me the pill right after the thing happened?” I asked.
“Yes, it would, young lady.” He looked at me as if he’d just noticed me. “But, you see, that memory isn’t permanently stuck in your brain. Every time you replay that event in your head—or out loud—the memory has to stick itself to your nerve cells all over again.
“Ameliorol disrupts the resticking process. When you reactivate the memory, which is usually an emotional process, the chemicals in the pill bind to your nerve cells—temporarily—blocking the adrenaline from attaching and the memory from reforming. It’s fast acting and only affects emotional or traumatic memory. All that cramming for an exam gets stored elsewhere in your brain.”
This whole scenario isn’t farfetched at all. In fact, the idea for the story came from current research in the area of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In PTSD, the patient has gone through a traumatic event (or events)—such as a car accident or combat—which haunts them. They experience a variety of symptoms, such as anxiety, flashbacks, night terrors, and depression. Researchers are exploring drugs that can “unstuck” the memories and help the patient get on with his or her life.
Here are a few of the articles / videos used in writing the book:
“Is Every Memory Worth Keeping,” Washington Post. October 19, 2004.
“A Pill to Forget,” Sixty Minutes. June 17, 2007.
“Cushioning Hard Memories,” Harvard Magazine. July-August 2004.