Implanting Memories Like in Total Recall: Could It Happen?

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.


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.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.