Eternal sunshine of mind now a reality
By Shampa Dhar Kamath | Published: 15th September 2013 07:18 AM |
Memory, said Einstein, is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events. But what if it’s deceptive because it’s been conjured out of thin air? Or because the real story has been erased from your brain? Both are possible. Science says so. As per recent reports, one set of scientists has successfully implanted false memories in the brain of lab rats while another set, quite independently, has identified and eliminated unwanted memories from the minds of a different pack of rodents.
The false memories are courtesy researchers at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. The team had previously found that memories reside in very specific brain cells, and that simply activating a tiny fraction of the cells can recall an entire memory—which explains why an old tune or smell can trigger off remembrance of things past. Back then, the researchers had detected a single memory in the rats’ brain, and genetically tagged the cells housing the memory with a light-sensitive protein. In phase 2, the team has tinkered with that memory via optogenetics—which involves the manipulation of individual brain cells using a fibre-optic beam of light—to change its contents. Voila, the brain now has a new memory. It’s the recall of an experience that never occurred. But it’s identical in nature to an authentic memory, and hence seems very real.
At the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute, scientists have been involved in exactly the opposite process. They have been pinpointing specific memories in rodents and eliminating them. The process, we’re told, involves ‘inhibiting a chemical associated with memory formation’. Sounds complicated, but the objective is simple: scientists are looking to wipe out a bad memory, like that of a traumatic event or drug abuse, without touching the good ones.
The tests haven’t yet been carried out on humans, so we don’t know how they’ll translate. But since we are already in the rat race, let’s imagine for a bit that it’s possible for us to create new memories, and wipe out the ones that tear us apart. What new memories would you want implanted in your brain, and what would you give away?
The global yes/nos are easy; just think of John Lennon’s Imagine. We can start by plucking out memories of rape and robbery, of greed and hunger, and religion-triggered angst, poverty, cruelty and combat. In their place, we can insert remembrances of happy childhoods, peaceful neighbourhoods, friendly skies and brotherhood of man.
The first to go from the musty drawers of my mind would be memories of untimely deaths of anyone that I’ve ever loved, pain suffered by the ones I still love. I’ll delete recollections of illnesses and accidents, of botched exams and unrequited love. I’ll eradicate references to office intrigues and friends who no longer qualify for the title. In their place, I want to recall songs playing on an old radio, chilly morning cuddles under the quilt, helpless giggles in a car stuck in fog, messy paintings created by my children, sumptuous breakfasts with parents on holiday, midnights snacks and early morning swims, and late night camaraderie by the bonfire, with passions raging stronger than the flames and the conversation headier than the cognac. There are people who mistake their imagination for their memory. Perhaps the scientists will let me join their ranks.