Memory Manipulation: What’s Even Real?

Remember when I wrote about bionic eyes? Well, that was just a simple Black Mirror episode for you to ease into the real unnerving stuff… Because today I want to talk to you about the ability to control someone’s memories.

Erase them, change them, but perhaps most frighteningly, construct false ones inside your brain.

No, I’m not talking about some super villain in tight undies or a persuasive psychiatrist, manipulating memories can now be done with the flick of a switch.

And the first successful experiment that proved this concept made a tiny mouse very famous. In 2012, Steve Ramirez and Xu Lieu of MIT managed to plant a terrifying memory into its little mouse brains and published the results of this in the major scientific journal Nature.


So What Exactly Did They Do?

Before I tell you about the specific research, it’s important to understand that the scientists relied on the idea that a memory is created when a permanent change is made to specific brain cells, a so called memory trace or engram. Moreover, memories are closely connected to emotions and often the easiest way to research memory is to use a negative emotion like fear.

Moving on to the experiment, which we can divide in three main steps:

  • Step 1: Forming a Natural Fear Memory


The very first thing the researchers needed to figure out was how a regular fear memory was encoded in the brain. Thus they put a mouse in a box with a specific shape, color, scent etc. While the mouse was exploring the box, it received an electric shock through its feet. This made the mouse freeze in fear and every time they would put the mouse in the same box, it would freeze in fear again. It remembered the pain.

  • Step 2: Reactivating a Memory


Then Ramirez and Lieu figured out a way to trigger the memory when the mouse was nowhere near the box. In order to do this they had to genetically engineer specific brain cells so they would become sensitive to light. Then by pointing a laser at these cells, the hope was that the cells would activate and therefore the memory stored in them would be triggered. Their hope was confirmed.

  • Step 3: Manipulating a Memory

In step three, Ramirez and Lieu managed to create a memory that never happened!


The genetically engineered mouse first explored one box (Box A) to form a memory of that environment. Afterwards, it was transferred to a second box (Box B) where the researchers used the laser to trigger the memory of Box A. At the same time that the memory reactivated, the mouse received an electric shock. Keep in mind that this was all done in Box B. However, the mouse connected the painful experience and the subsequent fear with Box A. The tiny creature was forever scared of an environment in which nothing actually ever happened.

Want to read about this experiment in more depth? The Smithsonian magazine can help you with that.


Not Only Mice Memories Can be Tinkered With

Last year, researchers at the University of Southern California showed that it is also very much a possibility for humans. They invented a brain implant to improve memory for patients suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer. 

 And many more people are focusing on enhancing the brain right now:

MIT’s super thin wires are leading to a new age in brain implants

Here’s everything you need to know about Elon Musk’s humanai brian merge

Enhancing human brain functions really is a quickly growing field.


Why Are Scientists Enthusiastic about Memory Control?

You might be questioning the necessity of it all, perhaps even get scared at the thought of a device influencing your brain. The ability to manipulate memory raises a seemingly unending number of moral concerns. How would we trust ourselves, or anyone for that matter, if we do not know what is reality and what is a manufactured brain signal? Big Brother could have had a much easier task in 1984 with this scientific innovation.

But for the hundreds of millions of people with Alzheimer’s disease, depression, dementia or PTSD, this could be life-altering. Imagine replacing someone’s traumatic experiences with something much more happy and light?

Yes, it is still extremely important to draw lines, to decide when too far is too far. Adequate laws and restrictions need to be in place before these techniques will reach their full potential. However, I believe that the opportunity to help people right now makes the risk worthwhile.

Picture credits: ian dooley on Unsplash

Illustration credits: 5W Infographics via Meet the Two Scientists Who Implanted a False Memory Into a Mouse | Innovation | Smithsonian


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