Are your memories real? How do you know?
These sound like questions from a mind-bending thriller – Total Recall, say; or Inception. But this isn’t science fiction. Researchers around the world are implanting memories, turning them on and off – and, according to one team, storing them on microchips.
Wow. Okay. Let’s back up here.
Memories, as it turns out, aren’t the most stable things in the world. Our long-term memories are more like scripts for plays than files on a hard drive – and with each new performance, details change. In fact, our brains can easily rewrite our memories to fit with the socially accepted versions of events – we don’t even seem to notice the difference.
All of which is weird, to be sure. But it gets weirder.
In 2011, researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California developed “memory chips” that can be used to turn specific memories on and off in a mouse’s brain. With the flick of a switch, a mouse forgets all he knows about how to navigate a maze – and with a flick in the other direction, the little guy recalls everything in a sudden flash of insight.
And in early 2012, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute electronically inserted memories into the brains of mice. In other words, they figured out which specific neurons in a mouse’s brain fire when it recognizes a familiar place – then they inserted a microchip that artificially stimulated those same neurons to fire as the mouse walked into an unfamiliar room.
This resulted in something deeply bizarre:
When an ensemble of neurons for one context (ctxA) was artificially activated during conditioning in a distinct second context (ctxB), mice formed a hybrid memory representation.
In other words, the mice instantly formed a memory of a place they’d never seen before: an artificial hybrid memory. No suit-clad agents or Edith Piaf songs needed. But even that isn’t the really weird part. Are you ready for the really weird part?
The scientists took their memory microchip and put it into another mouse’s brain – and that mouse apparently experienced the same hybrid memories.
Could technology like this be used to restore memory in brain-damaged patients? Could it disarm the emotional pain of a traumatic memory, while leaving the recollection itself intact? Would saving our memories digitally help preserve their original accuracy?
As you can imagine, questions like these have sparked a riot of blog posts declaring that The Matrix is upon us, thought control is now a reality, whole memories and learned behaviors can be transferred from one brain to another – you get the drift. If you want to call a simple “recognition alert” a full-fledged memory… be my guest, I guess – but I want to see what happens when other labs try to replicate this experiment; in particular, I want to see how more complex brains respond.
Most of all, though, I feel a war churning within me when I think about testing this technology on humans. Half of me hopes it doesn’t work at all, and half of me wants to be first in line to try it out. I yearn to understand it from the inside, subjectively; to know how it feels to believe a true falsehood; to examine the memories that compose my “self,” and to see for myself just how fragile it is.
All of which is, of course, terrifying. Which is exactly why it fascinates me.