Everyday, Science Fiction creeps ever closer to becoming Science Fact. In the newest issue of Nature Neuroscience, scientists in France reported their success in implanting false memories in mice.

Karim Benchenane and his colleagues at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris, France, implanted electrodes in the brains of mice. As the mice explored specific areas of their habitat, specific ‘place cells’ lit up in their brains. Then, when the mice were sleeping – and their brains were replaying and consolidating memories of what they’d learned during the day – the scientists stimulated the reward center of their brain each time a particular place cell lit up. When the mice woke up, they headed straight for the target destination where they ‘remembered’ receiving rewards. They also spent more time at this destination – unlike the control group, which explored at random without preference for a particular location.

Science is making significant inroads in the mapping of brain topography. Researchers have identified specific cells that light up in the brain in response to specific people. The scientific name for such cells is ‘the Jennifer Aniston neuron’ – because of a research subject who was found to have one brain cell that lit up only for Jennifer. [Surely, having a type of neuron named after you is a greater honor than having your name engraved on a piece of pavement on Hollywood Blvd.].

Last year, using a technique known as ‘optogenetics,’ scientists identified cells in the brains of mice that were involved in encoding fearful memories, as well as those that encoded positive and negative emotional memories. Then, the scientists switched them on and off, back and forth.

If all this gives you paws, Loren Frank, of the University of California San Francisco, believes that the Orwellian possibilities such research conjures in our minds – in which “the government gets inside people’s heads and starts to control them" – are quite unlikely. "It’s unbelievably hard to do any of this,” he says. “So, I’m not deeply worried about it – but it’s not impossible that it could happen."

As readers of this web site surely know, it has already been happening – certainly to the victims of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques. Psychologist Beth Loftus, who is best known for her work on the malleability of human memory – especially under extreme duress – has shown that it doesn’t take invasive surgery to implant false memories into the human brain. Almost three-quarters of participants in a test she conducted reported having rich false memories of a crime they did not commit.

Researchers Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire and Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia conclude the abstract of their article entitled, “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime” (published in Psychological Science – a journal of the association of Psychological Science) with these chilling words: “It appears that in the context of a highly suggestive interview, people can quite readily generate rich false memories of committing crime.” The noir science-fiction cult classic, Dark City, weaves a Matrix like tale that richly explores these possibilities.

Chilling as all this is, the positive side of the equation holds out hope for those who have been trapped in a dark city of their own making. Think of how many people have been haunted by recurring traumatic memories of situations in their past that have prevented them from moving forward in their lives. In Cracked: The Unhappy Truth About Psychiatry, author James Davies makes it abundantly clear why the cure to what ails us will not be found in a pill. Research like that conducted by Karim Benchenane, his colleagues and others into ‘what makes us tick’ could ultimately point the way to exorcising the ‘ghost in the machine’ – thereby liberating many beautiful souls to live rich, full lives rather than reliving miserable memories.

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News summary by Laurel Airica. Check out Laurel’s YouTube video, The Secret Spell of the English Language to hear her perspective on how the English Language casts a pall over our view of life.