In a paper published this week, MIT scientists report on an amazing experiment in mind control: They’ve been able to implant the false memory of electric shocks in a mouse, so convincingly that the creatures react in fear as if the experience really happened.
The trick is actually very specific, and uses a technique that you may not expect: genetics. By activating special brain cells with gene therapy, targeting cells that react to light, scientists were able to make the mouse believe it remembered receiving an electric shock. The memories were triggered by shining a laser into the optically sensitive parts of the mouse brain via a fiber optic. The engineered mice reacted by freezing in fear because they remembered receiving a shock in this environment before–even through it hadn’t actually happened.
The experiments are, of course, incredibly crude due to the limited mouse brain and the fact no one can ask a mouse what it’s thinking about. That means you can stop worrying that this tech is going to be used to implant false memories, Inception-style, into humans. Instead, the research is going to help inform other studies into false memory phenomena in humans, which may shed light on diseases like schizophrenia. Understanding the human brain is a hot topic in research at the moment, with the president promising a multi-billion dollars in research money and global efforts to map the brain.