Scientists discover how to implant false memories

Implanting false memories could cure Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and depression. It could also make scapegoating easier, allow for witness tampering, or give those under a brutal dictatorship false patriotism. 

 

Neuroscientist explaining intricacies of the human brain.
Neuroscientist explains inner workings of the brain.

MIT researchers Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu recently made history when they successfully implanted a false memory into the mind of a mouse. The proof was a simple reaction from the rodent, but the implications are vast. They placed the furry little creature inside a metal box, and it froze, displaying a distinct fear response. The mouse was reacting as if it had received an electrical shock there, when it hadn’t at all.  


What makes it more riveting is that their success was considered a long-shot. The hypothesis was that not only could they identify those neurons associated with encoding memory, but could essentially rewrite one. Experts say that this an impressive feat which helps uncover more of the mystery of how memory operates. Though neuroscientists have considered such a possibility for years, they never thought this kind of experiment could actually work.  

This breakthrough was possible due to research out of Oxford which discovered exactly how short-term memories are transferred into long term memory. But the MIT researchers took it into an entirely new direction. Memories are actually stored in not one area, but certain groups of neurons known as engrams. Ramirez and Liu came together in 2010 and designed a new method for exploring live brains, to identify specific engrams. The neuroscientists used a newly minted technique called optogenetics, which employs lasers to stimulate genetically engineered cells designed to react to them.

Areas where the memory resides are highlighted in purple.

The scientists and their team injected a biochemical cocktail into the brains of special, genetically engineered mice. The cocktail contained a gene with a light sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin-2. This was injected into the dentate gyrus—the area in the hippocampus where memory is encoded. Then they implanted filaments into the mice’s skulls. These acted as a conduit for a laser. The researchers found they could reactivate a memory by flooding certain neurons with laser light.

In order to prove that they could identify certain engrams, they reactivated a memory associated with fear. After the experiment, the mice’s brain tissues were examined under a microscope. Those associated with a specific memory glowed green due to the injected chemical. Liu compared it to a “starry night” where you could view “individual stars.” The engram that glowed was associated with an electroshock to the foot, and so triggered the startle or fear response.

Now that they knew which engram was associated with fear, they set up an experiment to test it. After injecting the cocktail into the same region of the brain, they placed the mouse inside a metal box. This box was safe. The mouse was able to explore for 12 whole minutes with no problems. The next day, it was put in a different box but received an electric shock instead. These two boxes differed in color, shape, and scent, researchers assure. The following day, the same mouse was placed inside the safe box again, and would have remembered it as safe. But researchers activated the foot shock memory using a laser, initiating the fear response.

Networks of neurons lighting up.

Is a similar procedure conceivable for humans? According to Ramirez, “Because the proof of principle is there…the only leap left between there and humans is just technological innovation.” Today, over 20 labs around the world are building upon this research. In fact, a French team recently implanted false memories in the brains of sleeping mice. Howard Eichenbaum, the director of the Center for Neuroscience at Boston University, is going in another direction. He is working on recreating longer and larger memories, those experiences which unfold over time.

There are many positive implications such as the ability to take the bite out of or even erase those painful memories attached to PTSD, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. There may be applications for Alzheimer’s, reverse engineering memories lost to the disease. It even holds promise for those suffering from substance abuse disorder, allowing them to forget their addiction.

Even so, there are negative connotations too. As our memory is the glue which holds our identities together, wouldn’t erasing a memory, even a bad one, indelibly erase a portion of the person themselves? Though painful, our negative memories define us. Of course, those hobbled by depression or haunted by PTSD could come to see it as a saving grace. Today, scientists aim not to erase technically, at least at first, but to rewrite a memory in a manner that promotes, rather than impedes, mental health. But the potential is there. There are further implications.

A neuron associated with the fear response is illuminated.

What about implanting false memories in witnesses to change the outcome of trials? Many in the past have been convicted when they were innocent, exonerated later due to the advent of DNA testing. False memory implantation might lead to a new and ruthless form of witness tampering. Films like Inception or Eternal Sunshine could become a reality. But if you erase the memory of a bad ex from your past, do the lessons you’ve learned about love go with it?

There are implications in terms of state control and even the sovereignty of one’s own mind. Such a procedure under a totalitarian regime could manufacture false patriotism, even wipe clean the memories of revolutionaries in order to make them loyal to the state. The ability to actually do this is thought to be four to five decades away. Yet the federal research group DARPA says it is a mere four years from a brain implant capable of altering PTSD-related memories. Theoretically, such technology could be used to silence dissent.

Meanwhile, a psychology professor at New York University, Dr. Gary Marcus, has proposed inserting a microchip into the human brain to allow for a human-internet interface, making the mind a search engine as well as improving one’s memory. Perhaps you could backup files to prevent tampering. But wouldn’t it also allow a hacker to say hack your brain? An important ethical dialogue must begin now. A superstructure and strict protocol must be erected. And yet, chances are those operating outside of its boundaries may still violate it. Though this technique shows promise, strong regulation and oversight must be enacted to prevent human rights violations and miscarriages of justice.

For where we are right now on manipulating memory and the moral implications click here: 

Fast superhighway through the Solar System discovered

Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.

Arches of chaos in space manifolds.

Courtesy: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
  • The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
  • The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

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How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Erdmann / Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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Culture & Religion

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

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