Visions of Frankenstein

There has been a lot of excitement about neuro-scientists at M.I.T managing to plant a false memory in the brain of a mouse. The New York Times suggested that this provided “detailed clues to how such memories may form in human brains.”

Dr. Tonegawa, head of the research team, went on to ask: “Why is our brain made in such a way that we form false memories?” He noted the importance of making people “realize even more than before how unreliable human memory is,” particularly in criminal cases when so much is at stake. He speculated that it might have “to do with the creativity that allows humans to envision possible events and combinations of real and imagined events in great detail.” (See “Scientists Trace Memories of Things That Never Happened.”)

The Guardian’s more sober account of this new research, made it clear to their readers how complex memory actually is. Chris French, the head of a Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Memory researchers have always recognised that memory does not, as is often assumed, work like a video camera.” It is “a reconstructive process,” built out of recalled incidents, images and emotions newly put together in the brain each time we remember something. As a result, every memory is different. The same events will be recalled differently at different times.

Yes, one could say, it is a “creative” process, but it’s more useful to think of it as adaptive. Each time we remember an incident from the past, we are drawing on associations that are relevant to our particular context in the present moment. The memory changes because what we need to remember at any given moment is also changing.

In other words, what the researchers did was not so much “create” a memory as insert an additional association, caused by an electrical shock, to an existing memory. That is not insignificant, as the precision in mapping the brain and the technology of inserting stimuli are remarkable achievements.

But as the researcher at Goldsmith’s cautioned: this is “far simpler than the complex false memories that have generated controversy within psychology and psychiatry, for example false memories of childhood sexual abuse, or even memories for bizarre ritualised satanic abuse, abduction by aliens, or ‘past lives’.” (See “False Memory Implanted in Mouse’s Brain.”)

The accounts of this research in the news, however, conjured up just those kinds of associations. Partly, of course, it’s just hard to grasp the meaning of a real scientific advance. But it also speaks to our continuing anxiety about what science is capable of doing to us, the Frankensteins it creates, or the surveillance and control it enables others to exert over our lives.

We crave the miracle cures that extend our lives, the technological breakthroughs that extend time and space, the virtual worlds that entertain us. But we also fear the weapons of mass destruction, “Frankenfoods” and other genetic improvements to our lives, implants, chemicals, the invasion of our bodies and minds. Our popular culture is haunted by Zombies and robots, vampires and aliens. Dystopian visions play at our multiplexes.

If our memories can be tampered with, we fear, what will be left that can’t be taken away?