Science Channel - InSCIder

5 Sep

Implanting False Memories

Crystal Brain

I'm eager to see the new remake of the 1990 sci-fi thriller Total Recall, even though Colin Farrell isn't as buff as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plus I'm still disappointed that they didn't cast the E*Trade baby to play the role of Kuarto, the mutant growing out of a man's abdomen who leads the Martian resistance fighters in the original. (Apparently British comedian Bill Nighy, who portrays the rebel leader in the remake, is blandly cast as just a regular human.)

None of that matters though, because both versions of Total Recall are based upon "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," a short story by my favorite sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick. He dreamed up the trippy concept at the core: What if scientists could erase certain memories from your brain, and replace them with fabricated recollections of things that never actually had happened?

In the original story, protagonist Douglas Quail (changed to Quaid in the movie version) is a mousey clerk who harbors a fantasy of going to the Mars colony on a daring mission as an undercover agent for the Inter-Planet Alliance. He goes to Rekal, Inc., a brain-altering pseudo-travel agency that offers to provide him with recollections of having actually experienced the adventure he's been dreaming about. When he says he's willing to settle for a fake memory, Rekal consultant admonishes him to see it differently.

"Don't think of it that way," McClane said severely. "You're not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions — that's second-best."

What really intrigues me about this idea of selective memory reshaping is that there's at least a possibility that someday, neuroscientists and psychologists routinely may be doing it for real. Back in 2008, I wrote this blog post about Medical College of Georgia neurobiologist Joe Tsien's discovery that a protein called alpha-CaM Kinase II could be used to erase specific memories in mice. Since then, as this 2010 article details, other researchers have been able to perform similar brain-wiping tricks by injecting a chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) into the rat's infralimbic prefrontal cortexes. Here's a 2012 Wired article on the prospect of developing a "forgetting pill."

Assuming that scientists soon will develop a method for erasing memories, the second half of replicating the Total Recalleffect would be implanting artificial memories in the brain. You may be surprised to discover that this trick already has been done by researchers, without any experimental drugs.

Back in the mid-1990s, University of California-Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated the extent to which the human memory is malleable with her famous "lost in the mall" experiment. Through clever questioning and mixing of real details from subjects' childhood with faked ones, she and a colleague were able to convince a quarter of them that as children, they had become lost and frightened in a shopping mall and had been rescued by a kindly older person. In 2003, she accomplished an even neater trick, persuading subjects that during a childhood visit to Disneyland, they had met an actor dressed as Bugs Bunny (a member of the competing Warner Bros. animation universe). She's since collaborated on more elaborate research efforts to manipulate memories and implant fake ones. (Here's a 2010 magazine article that I wrote about Loftus and her work.)

The reason that this is possible: Contrary to what we've been conditioned to believe, the human memory isn't a camera, a computer hard drive or a photocopy machine. Instead, memories are created by a highly imperfect process. As Loftus explained to a newspaper interviewer in 2008, the first weak link is the human eye itself, which collects information in fleeting bursts that last a fraction of a second. "Even though it feels to us like a movie camera, actually we are taking in the world in a series of eye fixations," she says. That incomplete collection of images is then reconstructed again and again by the brain. Like the film, the memory of those images is subject "not only to decay, but to contamination and distortion" from outside influences. In the article, Loftus sketched a scenario in which a witness could be fed false information about a suspect's guilt, and then recall it on the stand as if it were the original recollection. "You're going to think that's the guy, rehearse the face in your story, and pretty soon, you can develop a strong memory that that's the person, even though it isn't."

While psychologists already can implant fake memories with verbal chicanery, it might also be possible to speed up the process by utilizing some sort of apparatus that would transmit data and encode it in the brain's neurons, an idea that I wrote about in this 2009 blog post.

So what do you think? Should scientists try to develop a method for implanting fabricated memories in the fashion of Total Recall? Or should we leave our poor brains alone? Express your opinion below.

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