Escape is always so tempting. The thought of shedding the parts of yourself you don't like, molting, growing anew. Most keep their fantasies in check, satisfied with movies, books, their children, their lovers. They see the possibility of leaving town forever, but don't take action on it. Others -- those who are more free, or more addicted to change, or more afraid of what they may become -- make their escape, and find themselves a new place to be, a new life to live. Still, I sometimes wish there was an even more drastic change possible, more complete than a simple change of scenery, but not as frightening and alien as death. More a layer of plaster over what you were so you have a place to paint the fresco of what you are to become. Amnesia and rebirth.

Ancient Greece had the notion of the River Lethe, sipped from by souls in between bodies to cleanse the memories from them, leaving them pure for their new lives. "A draught of long oblivion," as described by Anchises in the Aeneid. That river doesn't flow through this world, though. If we want that release, we'll just have to figure out how to do it with science, replacing the grand spirituality of a river of unmindfulness with the subtle -- though no less beautiful -- spirituality of billions of molecules dancing in pattern to the same effect.

Memory is in some part based on neurons changing shape to have closer contact with others that tend to be fired at the same time. Obviously this would be very hard to change without causing violent damage to the neurons themselves, leaving the partaker (at best) comatose. Fortunately, memory also relies heavily on calcium ion concentration in neurons, which fire more quickly and effectively when they contain lots of Ca+ ions. Neurons are thought to absorb more Ca+ when they are used often, and more importantly, when they are used to associate certain neural groups with others. In other words, (generally speaking) the more memories a given neuron is part of, the higher its Ca+ content will be.

The idea behind the broad-spectrum amnesiac is a treatment that clears all of those ions out, making the neurons functionally just as randomly wired as they were at birth. Picture the process as a strand of DNA, delivered via retrovirus, that can only be produced inside associative neurons. The DNA codes for a protein, whose job is to neutralize the calcium ion, or bond it to something benign, or otherwise make it no longer useful to the neuron. Or, if your vision lets you see this far, picture a nanobot that seeks out neurons and destroys the Ca+ within. Or picture the Ca+ disappearing in any other way you see fit -- it's the effect that's important, not the cause.

Watch yourself take the actions leading up to your journey in your mind's eye: Prepare the scrapbook that the new you will find, try to write it in such a way that a complete stranger can understand, for that's what you will be. Find friends to stay with you through your change, and teach you how to talk, and how to walk, and about the world when you wake. Say goodbye to anybody you love who isn't up to watching. Advance pay your bills enough to last a few years. See yourself in your now empty room, lie down on the mattress. Shed a few tears, but while smiling. Look forward to ... what, exactly?

Put the needle in your vein, or the gel on your tongue.

Fall into deep, black sleep.


Awaken, confused and crying and new.




Note: Bruce Sterling explores this subject a little bit in his book Holy Fire. His version of the amnesiac causes long-term anterograde memory impairment, though, so it's not as cool as mine ;-)

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