Dr. Charles Higgins, a neuromorphic engineer at the University of Arizona has a crazy idea. He thinks maybe we could actually see the time (eventually) when the idea behind the movie Total Recall (2012) will become reality. That is, there could eventually be a way to implant false memories, and the way he sees it happening is through nanotechnology.
In the process of implanting millions, or even billions, of tiny nanorobots, pre-programmed to make alterations to various parts of the brain, we could, potentially, bring about the changes we desire. The question remains, of course, would we actually want to have total recall of everything.
As he says, we can already be programmed to ‘remember’ things that never actually happened, and he cites the famous ‘Lost in the Mall’ experiment conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, in which people were told supposedly true anecdotes about their childhood (the details supplied by family members).
One of the stories (which turns out to be fabricated), about them being lost in a shopping mall, is heavily flavoured with realistic details (again, supplied by family members), and yet roughly one in four of the study subjects said later that they actually recalled it happening!
Memory isn’t all that rigid
So it seems that memory, which we usually think of as rigid and inflexible, is actually quite plastic and pliable. It changes due to our beliefs at the time, and due to various other influences. Of course, we’ve all experienced this; when something traumatic and horrifying happens, such as a really bad accident, the memory can be shockingly and firmly fixed in place, never to be erased, while we often struggle to remember something of a more mundane nature.
According to one theory, Higgins says, we don’t actually remember as much as we think we do. Much of what we ‘remember’, according to this theory, consists of stuff we’ve mentally rehearsed or told someone else about. Those things, in time, gain the currency of ‘real’ memories. This being the case, Higgins reasons, it might be a lot easier to erase or re-engineer memories than we thought, since they didn’t consist of all that much in the first place.
Of course, for further evidence of how much memories can be altered, or even created, you only have to watch some of Derren Brown‘s television specials. He cleverly surrounds his ‘subjects’ with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) hints and prompts that, bit by bit, coax the subject to believe certain things to be factual.
The effects of this can be seen in the way subjects make statements and choices that clearly indicate that they believe they’re making free choices … when in fact they are acting in a way that’s heavily dependent on what they’ve been shown or told, surreptitiously. In effect, they’ve been given new memories to work with.
When could Total Recall become reality?
When can we expect to see Higgins’ idea of some sort of artificial Total Recall becoming fact? Not anytime soon, that’s for sure. The two drawbacks to this happening soon are that firstly, we just don’t know enough yet about the brain and how it works, and secondly, although nanotechnology is advancing, we’re still not close to creating nanorobots that will do exactly what we want them to do.
As for erasing memory, that might be a bit more do-able. It happens anyway, that memories are wiped, for various reasons, although to do it selectively is a different matter altogether. Traumatic incidents sometimes imprint themselves very strongly on the psyche, as mentioned earlier, but sometimes they result in all memory of the event being effectively wiped, as a sort of survival mechanism.
Researchers are working on something along these lines. Professor Karim Nader, of McGill University, best known for his theory of ‘memory reconsolidation’, has found that memories are rebuilt with fresh proteins every time you recall something, which clearly gives the lie to the idea of memories being permanently imprinted like files on a computer hard drive. The upshot of this is that if you can inhibit the formation of these proteins while recalling something traumatic, you could, theoretically, erase the memory.
It’s not all theory though. It’s been found to work in the case of rats, which were induced to forget that a certain action or sound would result in a small electric shock. If memories are as pliable as research seems to indicate, then maybe the world of Total Recall isn’t all that far-fetched, although it’s unlikely to come about anytime soon.
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