Can ECT erase bad memories? Electroconvulsive therapy and the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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I often get asked if electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can erase bad memories. I made this video to answer that question by sharing my experience with traumatic memories before and after shock therapy to show how it can impact PTSD & cPTSD sufferers like me.

I love seeing Jim Carrey in serious roles. 

While mostly known for his off-the-wall physical comedy he has a few serious roles in his film roster. It’s frick’n awesome when he brings that irrepressible intensity to drama. 

A favorite drama of his is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 

It’s a story about a couple’s tempestuous relationship and painful breakup ending in Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergoing a procedure to erase Joel (Jim Carrey) from her memory. In turn, he does the same. Unexpected consequences ensue.  

I watched this movie often in the early stages of my recovery from ECT induced brain-damage.

I think I was searching for a reflection of my new reality after losing old memories and my ability to make new ones was wrecked. 

The film’s choppy jump cuts and shuffled timelines felt true to my early recovery days. At that time I lived in constant confusion, struggling to make sense of my fractured memory timeline. I’d find myself sensing I’d been somewhere but couldn’t place it, talking to people I sensed I knew but couldn’t place where, felt something was missing but unsure what. 

Doctors refused to believe anything was wrong. 

I had gone so long without meeting another person injured by ECT…Doctors repeatedly told me ECT doesn’t cause permanent brain damage…I guess I needed to see a reflection of my world distorted after shock therapy and my ability to make new memories was wrecked. 

Is selective memory erasure even possible? 

There’s research on using electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD & cPTSD) like in the movie, selectively erasing or reducing traumatic memories. 

Over the years this pop-science topic has generated lots of buzz, journalists often incorporating Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind into their narrative like I’m doing now.

But I can speculate where the journalists can’t because I’ve lived it

Many who have ECT will say they don’t care or even hope they lose their memories from the treatment. I was one of those people. 

I wish I’d known more about memory before undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for supposed treatment-resistant depression (actually CPTSD and life-threatening undiagnosed medical conditions— all 100% treatable.) 

It’s more complex than you can imagine.

As my friend Sarah Price Hancock says, “Memory is not a buffet you can pick and choose from.”

In a brain primarily composed of water, doctors can’t control the electricity used to trigger a seizure let alone identify and target specific memories while leaving cognition and other memories intact. To imply they can is fanciful at best.

Nervous system damage & trauma response link

Cranial nerves involved in trauma responses are also at risk of damage from ECT in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

ECT is not Recomended for PTSD

As it turns out ECT isn’t recommended for PTSD at all, according to the device makers, Somatics LLC. One of my brilliant peers sent me this info:

According to page 7 of User’s Manual for Thymatron® System IV manual, under Intended Patient Population:

ECT does not reliably treat PTSD, other anxiety disorders, personality disorders, or medical disorders that cause symptoms of major depression, and the Thymatron System IV is not intended for use in treating such disorders. Anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorders, and medical disorders can underlie major depression or coexist with it, causing suicidality or other depressive symptoms.

The device makers themselves state their product is not meant to treat PTSD or medical disorders that cause depression.

One reason why ECT might not help PTSD sufferers is how the procedure reduces connectivity in the brain. Severity of PTSD Symptoms Linked to Decreased Activity in Hippocampus, discusses how damage to certain parts of the brain can worsen PTSD symptoms.

The best way I can describe my experience with trauma + ECT + brain damage is a hell

How ever you feel about the treatment, ALL who receive ECT have a right to comprehensive testing and rehabilitation for known injuries:

These outcomes are acknowledged by ECT device makers, yet were still we are still denied care:

“At the time of writing, no attempts have been made to rehabilitate patients who experience persistent adverse cognitive effects, but clinicians should be aware of the potential beneficial role of cognitive rehabilitation in the treatment and management of these effects.”

cognitive-rehabilitation-assessment-and-treatment-of-persistent-memory-impairments-following-ect.pdf (cambridge.org)

When individuals who have had ECT report ongoing memory disability, it is necessary for a clinician trained in neuropsychological evaluation to tease out the roles played by attention, concentration, overall slowed mental processing and deficits of executive function such as inability to shift mental set. The ECT psychiatrist and treatment team may not be trained in neuropsychological evaluation, since outside of research settings it is not routinely performed on people who have had ECT. When it is, it is usually initiated by the patient, not the doctor. Because of this, the treating psychiatrist may fear personal liability and thus be unwilling to attribute deficits to

ECT. Memory and cognitive effects of ECT: informing and assessing patients, Harold Robertson & Robin Pryor, download (psu.edu)

No one who experiences memory and cognitive problems after shock is offered follow-up. No one is told that there are tests that can diagnose these  problems, let alone what they are or how to get them. If former patients have the courage to tell the doctors who hurt them about their deficits, they’re simply told that any memory loss is only temporary. And when it doesn’t resolve, they’re on their own, months or years later, trying to figure out what happened to them and what to do about it.

Linda Andre, Doctors of Deception, What They Don’t Want You to Know About Shock Treatment

For years I was denied care that could have saved me unspeakable suffering, improved my quality of life, and early intervention might have spared me my current decline.

Help ensure everyone who has ECT has access to comprehensive testing and rehabilitation by signing and sharing the Audit ECT Petition.

Thank you!

Other actions you can take


Cited Works

ECT/Memory Erasure

CPTSD Resources

The following are resources that have helped me understand trauma, how it impacts my mental health, and strategies for dealing with them. These are for info proposes only. See disclaimer:

ECT injury resources

Anna

Anna is a childhood psychiatric drug and a teenage electroshock survivor. She founded Life After ECT to ensure people injured by electroconvulsive therapy have easy access to resources that can help them understand their injuries and find a path to recovery.