Published On: Sat, Mar 24th, 2012

REKALL – False Memory Induction

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If you ever need to identify a mad scientist just ask him or her for their scifi movie collection and it will tell you all you need to know. Take Mark Mayford of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego who – with his colleagues – genetically engineered mice so that neurons that fired would fire again when the brain was injected with a drug. Purpose? To locate the memory storage in your brain, and to create false memories.

The imaginary company REKALL from the movie Total Recall

In the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall this is exactly what was advertised by the movie’s antagonist company REKALL. In the movie Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is haunted by a recurring dream about a journey to Mars. He hopes to find out more about this dream and buys a holiday at Rekall Inc. where they sell implanted memories. But something goes wrong with the memory implantation and he remembers being a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen. Now the story really begins and it’s a rollercoaster ride until the massive end of the movie.

Fast forward to the research. The scientists put mice individually in a box and exposed them to color and smell, encouraging a group of neurons to form a memory of the condition. Because these neurons fired during memory-making, they could be reactivated when the drug was injected, allowing the researchers to induce an involuntary – or false – memory of the box.

Although the experiment is based on research from the 1940′s by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield who found his patients would recall seemingly random information – the smell of cookies for instance – when he stimulated different brain areas with electric shocks, this is exactly how the REKALL-machine from the movie induced ‘your memory of a lifetime’ and messing up Arnold’s brain in the process.

REKALL's false memory machine

The latter btw is also what happened to the mice. After the mice were introduced to a new memory related to the first box, the researchers put the mice in a second box while inducing the memory of the first box with the drug and gave it a small electro-shock.

Normally the shock would encourage the mouse to fear its immediate environment – the second box. Not in this case, though: when the mouse was shocked, it was sitting in the second box while strongly remembering the first. Consequently, it developed a fear of a mixture of both boxes – in effect an imaginary environment. Just like your REKALL implanted memory of a great vacation. And like I said, messing up the mouse’s brain.

Of course the whole mad scientist crowd is very impressed and happy cause the fact that you can introduce new bits of information into memory – read ‘implant memories’ – opens up a whole new universe of research. Yep, I bet it does and a whole lot more too.

Here’s the advert for REKALL Inc. Remember it, cause this might be very real soon.

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- As a creative strategist I work on complex (digital) communications issues for international industry leading companies, organizations and agencies. I'm interested in how technology integrates with (and influences) traditional marketing, media, human behavior, society and culture.

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