Jul 26 2013

Implanting False Memories – Sort Of

I never pass up an opportunity to remind people of the weaknesses and flaws of human memory. It is perhaps the most widespread and persistent delusion that our memories are reliable sources of information.

A new study in mice attempts to create false memories of experiences the mice never had. False memories are one of the major flaws of memory. Memory is not a simple process of encoding, storage, and recall. Rather, memories are actively constructed. In this sense, all memories are “false.”

We construct and reconstruct our memories every time we recall the memory. This process is susceptible to suggestion, confabulation, fusion of details, bias and distortion.

What the researchers in the current study did was put mice in a blue box and looked at the pattern of brain cells that activated. They then tagged those cells so that they would respond to a certain frequency of light by firing. They then put the mice in a red room, activated their blue room memory cells, then shocked their feet. They then put them back into the blue room, at which time the mice had a fear reaction. The implication is that they associated the shocks with the blue room, even though they occurred in the red room.

The reason for the “sort of” caveat in the title is that the memory of the shocks is not false, only their association with the blue room. Still, it’s an interesting technique. I’m now sure if this will have practical applications in humans, but it may be a useful research tool.

I also like pointing out what should be obvious – that this study (like thousands of other studies) supports the conventional view that our minds are our brains. Memories are nothing but the firing of clusters of brain cells. You can manipulate the mind by manipulating the brain.

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