Implanting Memories Like in Total Recall: Could It Happen?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 8 2012 10:55 AM

Implanting Memories Like in Total Recall: Could It Happen?

still from Total Recall.
Jessica Biel in Total Recall.

Photo by Michael Gibson/Columbia Pictures.

Remember the day you fulfilled your greatest desire? You won the Stanley Cup, the Nobel Prize, or the lottery. Maybe you walked a deserted beach (on Mars, even) with someone you´d been mooning over for years. You can now die happy—the memory will last forever.

That is, unless it’s erased, replaced, or was never real to begin with.

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The new Total Recall reintroduces viewers to this possibility. When Douglas Quaid (played by Colin Farrell) pursues memory implants to improve his nightmarish life, he learns that his memories had already been altered and that his past (and, therefore, his present) is an elaborate contrivance.  Quaid sifts through memories, unable to determine which are illusions and which, if any, are real.

While the reboot falls short of the original, the basic premise surrounding the malleability and reliability of memory is more relevant now than it was in 1990. Much has changed in 22 years, and while we upload profiles, portfolios, photos, and films, we still generally resist the idea that humans are comprised of data. Total Recall explores the increasing possibility that our experiences can be transferred, deleted, or modified like the files on our flashdrives.

Between the release dates of the two films, scientists have learned a bit about how to alter memory in two basic ways, via medication and microchips. But their work isn’t focused on creating artificial memories to make people feel better about their lives. Rather, it could be used to help protect memories from decay, among other things.

Scientists at the University of Southern California have successfully implanted in rats artificial memories that function like organic ones. First, the researchers encouraged the rats to develop real memories associated with a task—in this case, getting water. The rats learned, and quickly committed to memory, that when they pressed the lever on the left and then the lever on the right, they’d be rewarded with a drink.

The team then pharmacologically blocked a critical area of the hippocampus (the memory’s command center), which created a kind of memory hiccup. After a distraction of 5-10 seconds, the rats couldn’t remember which lever they’d just pressed or which one was supposed to come next. Suppressing part of the hippocampus essentially disrupted the neural connection between short- and long-term memories.

To see whether they could overcome the effects of the memory disruption, scientists then implanted the rats with microchips that contained the brain wave patterns that would allow them to remember how to get water. The chip made it possible for the rats to complete the task of getting water, as well as to record new memories. Furthermore, the rats whose memories hadn’t been inhibited by the drug could retain memories for a longer period of time after getting the chip.

These experiments show that it’s possible not only to replicate how the brain encodes memories—how it converts external information into a neurological construct the brain can store and recall—but also to store that information and make it accessible even if the brain can’t naturally reproduce that same pattern. It’s kind of like starting a computer from a boot disk when the hard drive is damaged.

Memories are colored by our experiences, our personalities, our beliefs, etc., which means that while there may be a basic blueprint for the way our brains function, it is fungible Not everyone’s memory categorically works the same way, but figuring out how to encode brain wave patterns means that at least theoretically, we can erase, replace, or enhance memories.

Scientists can also artificially activate the neurons necessary to encode memories. A study published in Science magazine earlier this year suggests that it’s possible to artificially activate specific memories, which is only a step away from being able to provoke memories of specific experiences, “real” or not. Scientists believe that it’s also possible to add new information to memories after they’ve been artificially retrieved, and that damage to the hippocampus can erase memories.

Any science fiction fan can’t help but consider the dystopian possibilities of these advancements: mind control, programming, an Orwellian brand of brain police. If data stored on microchips become indistinguishable from experiential or organic memory, it’s not so hard to envision a Total Recall scenario.

But there may also be marvelous upsides. While these experiments haven’t yet been replicated with primates or humans, the implications are particularly exciting for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or amnesia, or stroke victims. The microchips could replace the missing or damaged neural processes and help restore previously blocked or forgotten memories, as well as increase the brain’s ability to form new memories.

Someday—though probably not soon—we may not lose car keys or forget appointments. We may not even remember the days before our wildest dreams came true.  

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Joelle Renstrom lives in Boston, where she teaches and writes about all things geeky. Her blog, Could This Happen?, explores the relationship between science and science fiction.