Last month saw the release of a videogame called Remember Me. You play a woman named Nilin as she traipses around "Neo-Paris" in the year 2084, by which time, according to the game, social media has spread to people's memory banks, and pretty much everybody has a little thingie attached to the back of their heads where they can access them all. They have the ability to digitize memories, and so people trade them amongst each other, buy nice ones, and have bad ones removed, all by a large corporation that then stores and tracks all those memories.
What could possibly go wrong.
Well, let's go over it. Nilin has a move where she can put her palm up to someone's little memory thingie and overload their brain with so many memories that they experience a blowout. She, and really quite a few people in the game, have the ability to steal someone's memories. Or she can do one better and 'remix' a memory, altering details in a memory so that someone remembers something completely differently to the point where someone can be left remembering how they killed a loved one who is in fact perfectly healthy. People can get addicted to memory rejiggering and apparently if you do that, you end up becoming a subhuman zombielike person. As you do. And there's always the option of just planting voices in a dude's head.
This is set in 2084. But here, in 2013, a team led by Susumu Tonagawa at MIT has managed to implant a false memory in a mouse.The purpose for this is to try and figure out why people, unassisted by anything that might make them a videogame character, develop false memories of their own. The report in Science magazine will run you $20 to read, but here's what was going on. There's a process called optogenetics that basically means fiddling around with the makeup of individual brain cells. They took a protein called channelrhodopsin, which triggers in response to blue light, and set it so that the mice produced it in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that registers memories. The mice were put in what we'll call Chamber 1 and left to run around and get themselves a memory of it. The next day, the mice were put in Chamber 2, and given an electric shock under blue light, activating memories of Chamber 1 while adding the memory of the shock. The day after that, they were put back in Chamber 1 to see if the shock would be (falsely) associated with Chamber 1. It was, as the mice froze up in fear of Chamber 1.
Tonagawa called it 'incepting'. Okay, fine, Inception is a good pop-culture analogy too, but I've already brought up overloading a guy's brain with false memories until it blows out, and I'd like to keep going with that. Needless to say, scientists immediately started worrying about the potential applications and ethical concerns even though we're still only at making mice scared of a particular place for no good reason.
Scientists are our bestest friends and have never done any bad thing and I remember promising to give them my money and my pants. Susumu Tonagawa is and has always been a living god.