April 24, 2024

15 years ago, an underrated science fiction show revealed a bizarre truth about the human brain

If you’ve ever wanted a fresh start in your life, look no further than the late 2000s science fiction series Dollhouse for what a real clean slate might look like. Released 15 years ago in February, Dollhouse was an underrated (and short-lived) two-season series examined the consequences of erasing a person’s entire memory. In the show, a company uses ‘Actives’ or human puppets to work for wealthy individuals. Before each new assignment, the dolls’ memories are destroyed, allowing them to seamlessly transform from murderer to lover overnight.

While we don’t currently have the technology to control human memory, we are much closer to that reality than you might think. Laurens Patihis, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth who researches memory distortions, explains Other way around that it is entirely possible to implant false memories in someone’s mind. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve “recalled” a fake memory at some point.

The beginning of daily memory

Mutant enemy

By Total recall Unpleasant Commencementscience fiction films have put forward fictional interpretations of false memory implantation using high-tech gadgets. In Dollhouse, there’s an entire company dedicated to the practice, with multiple underground facilities and teams of sketchy scientists. But real-life examples are often much simpler: they arise through the power of manipulative suggestion.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus popularized the concept of false memories in the 1990s with her research showing how participants were led to believe that very false events – such as getting lost in a mall as a child – happened to them when they were shown these false details afterwards.

Another infamous example is the George Franklin case, in which Franklin’s daughter shared in court false memories – achieved through hypnosis – of her father committing murder. Franklin was later acquitted of the crime.

“It is important to note that not everyone is susceptible to these manipulations, and in most of Loftus’s famous experiments, the majority of participants actually develop no memories of events that did not happen to them,” says Jesse Rissman, one of the researchers. associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says Other way around.

Certain individuals are more sensitive, including people with schizophrenia, children and the elderly. Recent research found that more than a fifth of participants reported false memories after being exposed to fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic. The participants with false memories said they remembered hearing or seeing the fake news described in the study – even though this never happened. Individuals with greater critical thinking skills or knowledge of Covid-19 were less likely to report false memories.

Still, some experts argue that no one is immune to the lure of false memories. Patihis of the University of Portsmouth conducted research that identified false memories in individuals with “very superior autobiographical memory.”

The brain science behind false memories

Mutant enemy

What happens in the brain when false memories occur? Our brains use two mechanisms to recall memories: consolidation and reconsolidation. Consolidation occurs when our brains remember events that just happened, turning short-term memories into long-term memories. Reconsolidation occurs when our brains remember events that are already stored in our long-term memory. When we do this, our minds become vulnerable to change, and that’s when false memories can take over, says Rissman.

When a person recalls a long-term memory and is presented with an alternative account of that memory, the mind can mix those accounts together and add new – false – details to them.

“There are a number of intriguing experimental techniques to exploit this reconsolidation process to update and change past memories, for example by making them less emotionally charged or by changing specific details,” says Rissman.

Such experiments may sound downright nefarious, but there may be potential benefits to disrupting reconsolidation. Some research suggests that people with PTSD might benefit from memory manipulation, which would dampen specific memories. On the other hand, people with Alzheimer’s disease could benefit from improving memories.

Can we discover false memories?

Research shows that it is difficult to distinguish false memories from true memories in brain scans, also called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When you take an fMRI of the brain, the same neural networks are activated regardless of whether you are recalling a memory or imagining a future moment.

“The consensus seems to be that we cannot distinguish false memories from true memories,” says Patihis.

But over the past decade, neuroscientists have come closer to generating and mapping false memories in the brain — albeit in rodent minds rather than human minds — using a method known as optogenetics. In a 2013 study, scientists successfully manipulated cells in the hippocampus of mice, a brain region crucial for memory.

Using a surgically implanted device, researchers were able to activate a precise set of neurons at the right time, causing mice to freeze as if they had received an electric shock to the foot, even though no such shock had been administered to the mice.

The researchers were “essentially laying the building blocks for a false memory,” Rissman said.

We can’t yet safely use optogenetics to induce false memories in humans, although Rissman says research is underway to use the same techniques to restore vision or hearing.

“It is also far from clear whether more complex memories can be implanted [in humans],” says Rissman.

In other words, no one will be turned into a human doll anytime soon. For now, we’ll have to entertain ourselves with science fiction worlds like Dollhouse who play with the consequences of an often coveted clean slate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *