Mice and men and memory

NPR Cosmos and Culture reports that false memories have been successfully implanted in mice by observing the memory-forming areas of their brains. So why is this interesting?

Two reasons stand out.

Working together, the brain and body inhabit a world that continually imparts jolts and jabs. The whole embodied enterprise, for us, is a cooperative effort to make sense of day-to-day life. So I'm wondering to what extent any false memory will last once the mouse's brain and body once again begin to correspond without the experimenter's electric mat tazing the poor creature's feet.

Nonetheless, the writer, Barbara King, suggests that the sufferers of post-traumatic stress syndrome may one day benefit from this research insight. Let's hope so.

She also raises this unexpected point:

Scientists have known for a long time that human memory is both unreliable and reconstructive, that is, we modify our memories heavily as we revisit them. But why would evolution have allowed the brain to be built in such a way? What's the benefit?

Speaking to the The New York Times, study scientist Susumu Tonegawa speculated that the benefit may have to do with the creativity that underlies human artistic and scientific endeavors, which depends on thinking freely about both real and imagined events. This thought makes sense to a biological anthropologist like me.

I too find a bit of worldly solace in the idea that an unreliable memory might also let us think freely about "real and imagined events," or that this imperfection makes room for the creative spark.

IdeaFestival 2013 speaker Oliver Burkeman, in fact, expands on that thought when he talks about the undesirability of pushing aside all bad memories or unpleasantness in a (futile) quest to be happy. Getting outside our comfort zones expands our creative horizons. We grow. For a tease on this and other themes on which he will no doubt expand in September, I encourage you to watch his video.

Stay curious!


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by kjarrett