The movies “Total Recall,” “Inception” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” involved implanting or erasing memories, and they were all works of science fiction. But as the PBS Nova documentary “Memory Hackers” reveals, the idea of altering memory is not that far-fetched, and has been successfully explored in the laboratory in various experiments. Some of these experiments involve mice and sea slugs, but it’s not hard to imagine humans as mind-control subjects.
“Nobody should have to worry that this is going to be done to humans any time soon,” says neurologist Nico Dosenbach. “The human mind is very, very complex, and completely erasing memories, that's far away. But it's not impossible.”
The documentary, which premieres on PBS Feb. 10, shows Dosenbach mapping the brain of Jake Hausler, a 12-year-old boy with a total recall ability known as "highly superior autobiographical memory," in order to better understand how memory works.
“Memory is very complicated, easily broken by aging, trauma, Alzheimer’s, that can lead to severe disabilities. If we can understand memory better we can use that to help people with memory disorders. There are so many people suffering either from intrusive, unwanted memories or difficulties making new memories. I think the benefits in the long run will greatly outweigh the risks,” Dosenbach says.
Some researchers believe that editing memories could help PTSD sufferers, people with phobias, anxiety disorders, and victims of psychological trauma, such as rape victims.
“I think it's ethically irresponsible for us not to do this research. We can make tremendous differences in health and medicine that have tremendous benefits for society,” says Dr. Julia Shaw (right), a criminal psychology expert and professor and researcher at London South Bank University.
However, her study of false memory has yielded surprising findings about the ways our thoughts can be manipulated. In an experiment, she used the power of suggestion and repetitive recall to implant false memories in subjects about an incident that didn’t occur, and by the end of the experiment, 70 percent of the participants believed they had committed a crime.
If that can happen so easily, how reliable are trial witnesses? The implications for the criminal justice system are obvious.
“The system needs a lot more education on how memory works and, more importantly, how it doesn't work,” says Shaw.
As a consultant for the police and the military, she says she teaches them “to ask the right questions, to get reliable memories from witnesses, victims, and suspects. False confessions, confessions, eyewitnesses — they make a case, or they break a case. Most memories are good enough, but we need to be looking for red flags, and police officers and the military need to know what they are. We need to be very cautious how we ask people involved in the criminal justice system questions.”
Shaw points out that false memories, which we all have, can be beneficial.
“They’re the foundation of creativity and intelligence and all of the amazing things that we do as humans,” she says.
Michael Bicks, the writer, producer and director of “Memory Hackers,” points out that our memories “are not meant to be 100 percent accurate. They are not a recording device, but a way of taking our experiences, putting them together, and then being able to creatively predict what's going to happen in the future. False memories are a byproduct of an amazing system that allows us to walk through the world and do all of these complex things.”
And if, unlike young Jake Hausler, you don’t remember everything, it’s nothing to worry about.
“Forgetting is probably the most important thing your brain does,” says Bicks. ”It allows you to keep what's important and discard the rest.”
Dr. Julia Shaw photo: Boris Breuer