Total Recall, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Once the realm of science fiction, advances in technology, neurochemistry, and cognitive science are redefining what memory is, enabling us to erase old memories and implant new ones.
The Nova documentary Memory Hackers, premiering tonight on PBS, recounts the scientific breakthroughs over the last 70 years that have lead to our current understanding of where and how long-term memories are formed, stored, and recalled.
“The purpose of memory is not to be a recording device, but a much more creative act,” says Michael Bicks, Memory Hackers‘ writer, director, and producer. “It changes the way we look at the brain.” He adds: “It’s built to be flexible and quickly rearrange and incorporate new information. So a lot of the things that we think are bad about memory, like forgetting things or false memories, are byproducts of the system. It’s not designed to be perfect, so people shouldn’t expect it to be.”
The hour-long film shows how the advent of imaging tools—PET scans, TMS, fMRIs—and psychopharmacology are facilitating new ways to chart memory and pave the way for radical treatments of disorders such as addiction, phobias, and PTSD. It also glimpses the future with cutting-edge research such as optogenetics, which allows researchers to map a specific memory in genetically modified rats and manipulate it with lasers.
In tackling the film, which took a year to complete, “the biggest challenge is that memory is a huge field, and you don’t want to say, ‘Here are some interesting things about memory,'” says Bicks. “You want to build a narrative.”
To do that, Bicks focused on the researchers and subjects behind some of the field’s most provocative discoveries. One is Jake Hausler, an 11-year-old boy who has near total recall of every day of his life since age 8. Another is University of Amsterdam professor Merel Kindt, who succeeded in erasing spider phobias in patients. And, most unnerving, is a false memories study in which London South Bank University psychology professor Julia Shaw convinced subjects to remember doing things they hadn’t actually done in incidents that had never occurred.
“We stumbled upon Julia Shaw’s research through a graduate student,” says Bicks. “I thought, ‘No, this could not possibly be.’ And she said, ‘No, no, I convinced all these people that they committed crimes.’ She sends links to all her videos, and I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ I called up other scientists, and said, ‘Could this really be?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, it really is.’ It’s a little scary and you think it could not happen to you. But apparently, it could.”
Such discoveries have already impacted the criminal justice system, which warns juries of weaknesses in eyewitness testimony, and have opened up discussions about the ethics in memory manipulation. “The ethics is rushing to catch up with the science,” says Bicks.
One of the segments Bicks was forced to cut for time had to do with one of the purposes of memory. “The same parts of the brain used to remember the past are used to imagine the future, leading scientists to believe the purpose of memory is to take past events and put them together to draw a picture of the future,” he says. “There’s biological proof of that. Past experience helps people predict what they’re going to do.”
Memory Hackers also considers evolutionary arguments for the role forgetting plays. “The goal is not to retain every fact but individual experiences of what you need,” says Bicks. “Rewriting memories allows you to update them. But the purpose of forgetting is not just so you can clean off the hard drive. Like Jake, the boy in the film who can remember everything, the happiest day of his life and the day he got his fingers slammed in the door play at the same volume in his brain. So the ability to forget the unpleasant things allows us to create a story about ourselves that we can live with.”