The brain is fascinating, and it’s one of the many things humans are still struggling to understand. In an attempt to better comprehend its inner workings, neuroscientists studied memory a la “Inception”. The bold idea of planting false memories— that is, memory implantation —is no longer only on the big screen, as a pair of innovative minds have achieved success in a first of many for the neuroscience community. It may even hold the key to finally understanding how the human mind creates and destroys memories.
On the Case of Memory Implantation
The human mind is complex. Even some of the best brains in the world are still susceptible to an imperfect memory and experience forgetfulness. In fact, it’s not just losing memories that occur. Many people also remember things that haven’t even happened, which are known as false memories. Another type of false meories is having only partial correct recollections of things—with the rest—pretty much invented, such as the Mandela effect. This phenomenon is when a collective of people remembers something in a particular way, but in actuality was an incorrect memory. It was named after Nelson Mandela, whom for some reason many people believed died while in prison in the 1980s. (He died on December 5, 2013). It even went as far as people putting their foot down and saying they distinctly remember seeing his funeral on television.
While memory implantation or, more specifically in this point of discussion, implanting false memories is not a brand new thing, it only exists mostly based on suggestion. Because of the strange and funny way the brain works, scientists took the bold idea of memory implantation using sophisticated technology.
Of Mice and Memories
Steve Ramirez, who at the time was a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), executed the idea by tricking a lab rat inside a small metal and plastic box into thinking that it had previously been shocked in that location. Veritably, Ramirez and his fellow MIT colleague Xu Liu planted that false memory, resulting in the mouse undergoing signs of stress and trauma as if that event actually happened to it in that specific box.
The Ramirez and Liu experiment’s success was the result of a two-year effort in their idea that specific brain cells linked to memory can be identified and also be manipulated to remember a “memory” that never even happened. Howard Eichenbaum, memory researcher and director of the Center for Neuroscience at Boston University, praised this work. “It’s a real breakthrough,” Eichenbaum said. “(It) shows the power of these techniques to address fundamental questions about how the brain works.”
Another experiment, this time by Johns Hopkins neuroscientists, studied how signals between two nerve cells (synapses) travel in order to create memories. Interestingly, there are proteins found in those synapses that die and regenerate in such a pace that scientists simply cannot keep up. It took them a while to understand how learning lasts and becomes memories. The Johns Hopkins neuroscientists used large-scale studies of such proteins, as well as high-tech chemical analyses, to reveal proteins within synapses found in mice’s brains. While most proteins lasted only for 1–2 days, the team found 164 proteins that lasted far longer—as much as several weeks or months—and were estimated to last for years. These specific proteins are so stable that they essentially contribute to long-term memory and learning.
A Spotless Mind In Real Life?
Perhaps one of the most famous depictions of memory erasure and modification is the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. In the film, a company called Lacuna specialized in erasing targeted memories. The protagonists had memories of each other’s relationship together deleted from their minds by creating new ones that did not include the other person. In addition, movies like “The Bourne Identity”, “Men In Black” and “Total Recall” had similar memory implantation, erasure or modification plot points as well.
While the work of Ramirez and Liu was performed on lab mice, this feat opened the possibility of successfully manipulating, adding, or even erasing memories just like in the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. This fact can get polarizing: If science can help delete a bad memory or create a good one, what are its implications?
Implications of Memory Implantation, Modification or Destruction
On one hand, manipulating, adding, or even erasing memories can be a great cure for certain situations such as when a person is suffering from psychiatric distress [such as substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)]. A similar study by Christine Denny and her colleagues at Columbia University suggests that memories may be revived, even for people suffering from Alzheimer’s—a disease attached to the common assumption that a person experiencing it completely loses their memories. As such, the MIT, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia experiments may yield positive results for certain people under the right circumstances.
On the other hand, memory implantation or modification and destruction may also have negative implications, especially regarding ethics. Some would even argue that while people experience unpleasant memories, not all of them are truly bad; some would say that they may even be necessary sometimes. For example, remembering and learning from a past mistake is crucial to a person’s development and any future actions they could take because of those lessons. As such, experts think the ability to get rid of or at least soften memories may have a bold and drastic effect on society and may even have a disruptive impact on the law.
Either way, these studies on mice have a long way to go before they could actually be done on humans. If such a piece of technology is already available, would you choose to reboot your memory just like you would a computer?