Memory manipulation has always been a hot topic in science fiction.
Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind let us live vicariously through characters who are able to expunge painful memories or implant them at will. Who doesn’t have an embarrassing moment, a horrible tragedy, or a loss that they’d rather forget?
Well, this isn’t just a movie plot anymore. According to a new documentary that premiered in the US this week, scientists have discovered a way to manipulate memory.
The Importance of Forgetting
“Memory Hackers,” from PBS’s NOVA documentary strand, explores the newest research in the field of memory.
“For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays it intact,” say the film’s makers. “But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories.”
Among other subjects, the documentary tells the story of Jake Hausler, who, at the age of 12, is the youngest person to be diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Hausler can remember just about every single thing he has experienced since the age of 8.
The filmmakers also speak to clinical psychologist Merel Kindt, who has discovered that medication can be used to remove the negative associations of some memories – through which she has managed to ‘cure’ patients of arachnophobia. You can read about some of her research in this peer review article from Biological Psychiatry.
“Forgetting is probably one of the most important things that brains will do,” says André Fenton, a prominent neuroscientist who is currently working on a technique to erase painful memories. “We understand only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human memory.”
Dangers of Implanting Memory
The film also highlights the work of Julia Shaw, a psychology professor at London South Bank University, who has designed a system for implanting false memories, and has successfully convinced subjects they’ve committed crimes that never took place.
This research has massive ethical implications. As Shaw explains,
“After three interviews, 70% of participants
were classified as having false memories of committing a crime (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) that led to police contact in early adolescence and volunteered a detailed false account. These reported false memories of crime were similar to false memories of noncriminal events and to true memory accounts, having the same kinds of complex descriptive and multi-sensory components.”
Shaw hopes that her research can be used to help address issues of concern related to false confessions. She believes that some questionable interrogation tactics mirror the way memories were falsely implanted in her study.
Memory Hackers debuted in the US on Wednesday night, and will be broadcast on PBS America in the UK at a future date. You can watch full episodes online here to learn more about this research.