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Question Your World: Can We Plant Fake Memories?

What happened to you yesterday? What did you learn? Our lives are built moment by moment and our memory is what allows us to understand the past and continue to operate in the present. So, what happens if your oldest memories get totally replaced? What if we can plant fake memories? Find out what this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia has to say about it.


Think about this for a moment. Currently you are reading these words, which you understand because somewhere in your memory you have a collection of data that tells you what all these letters mean and how you should interoperate them. Without your memory of how letters and words work there’s a chance that everything you read may just look like dowh qzuuiop shopews basxpil and you would have no idea how to connect the meaning of those letters to your knowledge of words. So, the point is, your memory is pretty important. 

Well, we're not the only ones fascinated by the subject of memory. Scientists at M.I.T have also been trying their hand at understanding memory a bit more. In a recent experiment they did something quite remarkable. While exploring new neural networks they were able to implant a false memory into the brain of a mouse. This is how they did it.

Take a mouse and place it in Room A, which has certain characteristics that the mouse will be able to identify as Room A such as color, texture, or layout. These neurologists were able to monitor brain activity of the mouse and noticed where the neural networks (engrams) were located for Room A and they isolated that part of the brain. Once it has walked around and developed its memory of Room A they moved him from Room A to Room B which has a totally different set of characteristics, a different shape, size, look, etc. The mouse now is forming memories of a second location. The scientists are tracking those memories as well.  

Once the mouse is in the second room they introduce a slight electrical shock to its feet and track those memories as well. After mouse’s busy day of room-hopping the scientists have been able to isolate the following memories: Room A, Room B, and the electrical charge from Room B. Using this information the scientists were able to place the mouse back in Room A while activating the memory of Room A and the electrical shock and the mouse reacted as if it was about to get shocked. In the mind of the mouse Room A is the location where the shocking happened, even though in reality it was Room B. So, the scientists were able to plant the memory of the shock in what should have been a harmless memory of a room it walked around in earlier. 

This is a huge breakthrough and there is more research on the way. After proper research and study on this a potential application could be to help those with mental conditions involving memories. Schizophrenia and extreme cases of P.T.S.D could be greatly impacted with more research on this new process. On the flip side the concern is that if we were to become really good at manipulating memories would it be possible to introduce a false past into one’s mindAfter all without your past what becomes of your current reality?

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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