We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Researchers

Blockbuster science headline of last week was “Neuroscientists plant false memories in the brain.” The whetted some intellects—if intellects can be whetted—and caused others to tizzy. Philip Dick turned out right yet again!

But whatever happened at MIT, the place which put memories into rats, an event which caused the headline, “implanting” false memories isn’t novel. The non-male to whom I am oriented constantly—but gently, oh so gently—reminds me of my false memories. How these got into my data bank is difficult to say, yet somehow sensible recollections of events which never happened are sluicing between my ears, and every time I attempt to vocalize one of them an audible alarm sounds from across the room.


Remember the “Satanic Panic” of the 1990s? And the hundreds of “therapists” who convinced equal numbers of women that they had been “abused” around that same time? Elizabeth Loftus did a terrific job showing that it is trivial to create traumatic “memories”.

Now a memory, if it is stored in the brain, is stored there somehow biochemically, adjusted neurons or whatever. A memory may be distinctive, a single localization, a cluster of neurons if you will, or it may be diffuse, spread out across the brain. It may be both for all we know. Lots of conjectures on which view is right.

A memory may go in faulty, but that’s more of an error than a false memory. For instance, you may think you’re on Elm street when it’s really Maple. Chalk up another false memory. Once a memory is in place it is liable to change or corruption. Events aren’t stored cinematically, only gists: and how this is done is also subject to debate. Untoward things can happen to the brain, like infections or trauma.

And then the path to a memory isn’t the same as the memory. Names for me are difficult to access. Often I can look at a face and tell you all about the man: his age, birthplace, job, habits, and so forth. Just don’t ask me his name. Or I can use a theorem, famous, everyday, commonplace; I can even prove it to you. Just don’t ask me to tell you what its called. I will “rack” my brain trying to come up with names or labels. They usually come, showing the memories are there, but it takes time, showing that getting to them is a different process.

One thing is sure. Brow beat somebody long enough, or plead with them to “remember” “event” by suggestive clues and they’ll eventually “recall” what didn’t happen.

The MIT “implantation” wasn’t the same thing and isn’t really a false memory at all. What happened was this. Researchers put some mice into a chamber (A) and let them roam at will. This “implanted” memories, just as you implant memories by walking down Elm (or Maple?) street. Next day they put the mice into chamber B and, at a specific spot in the chamber, they zapped them: zzzzzt!

Same time as the almost-electrocution came a light pulse which was said to “trigger” the memory of being in Chamber A (never mind how). Okay so far?

Third days sees the mice back in chamber A “where they now froze in fear”. Now you might think that this is just a case of mice becoming skittish and worn after being over-manipulated and nearly fried. But no, say researchers. Or, actually, “amygdala” said researchers, the go-to explanation of all things neural (something about “elevated” levels of this or that). The amygdala assured them that false memories of zapping in chamber A were implanted.

But it seems to me a commenter who calls himself “rplevy” was closer to the mark with his simpler explanation:

They didn’t plant false memories, they triggered an existing traumatic memory, and in so doing created a new *true* memory of reliving a traumatic experience in a novel environment. So then when re-entering the space where the traumatic memory was triggered, the mouse had a second-order trigger due to the trauma of being triggered there.

Steve Ramirez was part of the team and he said, “Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy.” That memories could be activated (who will be the first to quote Proust?) or changed was never in dispute, and science is of very little help in answering questions of philosophy. So don’t plan on opening your Total Recall franchise just yet.


  1. Luis Dias

    Yep, still not there

  2. DAV

    So don’t plan on opening your Total Recall franchise just yet.

    Darn! I think I could use more memory but I’m not sure. I’ve forgotten if I do.

  3. Scotian

    You are starting to sound like a determinist, Briggs.

  4. Briggs


    If I was then nothing would matter!

  5. Nullius in Verba


    It would still matter – even if it was inevitable.

  6. I can relate to Briggs and his inability to recall names. I can stand in a location, tell you I have been there, what I did while there, but have no memory of how to get to that location. I could drive there again without someone guiding me.

    The non female who whom I am oriented says to blame all of this on alien abduction!

  7. Ray

    I too have a problem remembering names. Can I get a memory upgrade from those guys?

  8. JohnK

    Matt, you’ve made quite the elegant review article of that research in this short post. In doing so, you offhandedly made brief but sophisticated (and accurate) allusion to the state of the question in recent memory research. Very impressive, indeed. Allowing the fatuousness and lack of depth of the researchers to shine through at the end is a master touch.

    (I was going to say ‘underlying’ fatuousness of the researchers, but then wondered whether real fatuousness could in fact be ‘underlying’. Wouldn’t fatuousness have to be right on the surface to exist as fatuous?)

    I’m certain it was technically difficult to do what these researchers did, and they probably did something scientific and even scientifically useful; we’re only making fun of what they (unreflectively, ill-educatedly) think it means.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    Those fellows need to be more empirical. It’s always in the interpretation of the facts – the adding of values by those selfsame brains – where they heigh off to the empyrean, where dwell memes and phlogiston and polywater.

  10. Jim Fedako

    In our post-gender world, this comment is a truism, “The non-male to whom I am oriented constantly—but gently, oh so gently—reminds me of my false memories.”

    Today, we are all non-males.

  11. Grizzly

    Funny. I would have expected better out of a place with the reputation of MIT. What *do* they teach kids these days?

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