Typical travel scenario for me: I've just cleared security and I'm on my way to the gate. Not 30 seconds ago, I had my boarding pass in hand. Now I've put my shoes back on, put my laptop back in its bag, put my watch on, and...where is my bloody boarding pass? Coat pocket? No. Other coat pocket? No. Obvious, less obvious, or extremely unlikely pocket of compter bag? No. Outer pocket of carry on bag? No. Stuck in my paperback? No.
Oh, no--I must have left it on the other side. Now I have to go back and explain things. This will be fun.
Shirt pocket. That's it. There it is. (Whew.)
Somewhere in the midst of shoes, watch, coat, and laptop, my short-term memory lost track of the boarding pass. Pretty sad, when you consider the accomplishments of these folks:
But it sure was hard not to feel stupid watching three dozen people who had, in just five minutes, memorized the positions of 52 cards in a shuffled deck and were now happily organizing cards in a new deck into the same order as the pack they had memorized.
"I can feel my brain curling up into a fetal position in shame," whispered one onlooker, who identified himself as a professor of statistical science at a New York university. "I feel very small and very ... limited right now."
Interestingly, the people who perform these amazing feats of memory claim that they're using very simple techniques that anyone can learn. I'd like to learn some of those techniques, although I think what would help me most at the airport would be using an ancient and arcane practice called "paying attention."
Still, I wonder how far these techniques go. I'm sure these people have no trouble remembering the name of everyone they meet at a party, but would they have an advantage in, say, trying to learn a foreign language? We're rapidly approaching the day when upgrades to our brain power will be no more unusual than plastic surgery is today (and a lot more useful.) I suspect that our brains are already more upgradeable than we realize.
Nick’s estranged wife, Helen, stands with their son, Troy, at Nick’s bedside. Helen and Nick have had a volatile marriage, plagued by Nick’s alcoholism and occasional violent outbursts. They’ve lived apart for the past four years, but he’s dying and she’s returned to his side. (Scans have shown that Helen’s brain is unusually developed in an area linked to loyalty.) She is relieved that Troy has not inherited his dad’s genes for addictive tendencies, especially since it was shown in 2025 that susceptibility to nicotine addiction was not a discrete gene after all, but stemmed from a host of genetic and environmental factors.
“Dad sure looks peaceful, Mom,” says Troy. “I know it was hard, but you did the right thing with the pain-erase memory implant.”
Helen sighs. “You were right. No time for ancient history now. I saw my own father die, and he was so debilitated by his regrets and guilt. This is much better.”
“It’s the humane thing.”
Nick stirs in the bed. His eyes flutter open. “Helen,” he whispers, “we’ve had a wonderful life, haven’t we?”
“We were luckier than most people.”
“I just hope our son can look back someday and feel at least as much pride and satisfaction as I do right now.”
Troy steps forward and takes his hand. “Don’t worry, Dad. I can practically guarantee that I will.”
When such technology becomes widespread, it won't just by used by people on their deathbeds. Everyone has memories that they would just as soon erase. Whether we should be allowed to rase them raises all kinds of stickyethical questions. Then there's a related question that I haven't seen discussed as much...what are the ethical considerations around deliberately implanting false memories?
This might be done for entertainment, as in the movie Total Recall. Or it could be done for more sinister reasons. It's been widely argued that without the benefit of any advanced technologies some overzealous prosecutors have been implanting false memories of molestation in children's minds for years. Think how much more difficult the truth would be to ascertain if memories could be implanted directly, rather than through persuasion.
A Japanese company says they've figured out how:
Prospective dreamers are asked to look at a photo of what they would like to dream about and then record a story line into the Yumemi Kobo, or "dream workshop".
The machine uses the voice recording, along with lights, music and smells, to help them direct their own dreams during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, Takara Co said.
Then again, maybe they're just flakes:
Takara Co, which brought the world the "bowlingual" and "meowlingual" devices - which purport to translate your pet's communication - admitted the machine may still need refining.
This is unsettling:
Alan Alda had nothing against hard-boiled eggs until last spring. Then the actor, better known as Hawkeye from M*A*S*H, paid a visit to the University of California, Irvine. In his new guise as host of a science series on American TV, he was exploring the subject of memory. The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened.
Imagine the abuse that being able to manipulate memory in this way could enable. Inducing behavior-changing memories might prove to be an effective form of brainwashing.
It's amazing to consider how malleable our memories are. I wonder how much of my life actually happened? Here's an odd little episode from childhood. I was watching TV with my parents when this commercial came on that showed cars parked near the water; there was also some reference to a tunnel. I asked what this was. My parents shared this kind of knowing look, and then my Dad explained that it was the tunnel under the Atlantic ocean. I was astounded! I didn't know there was such a thing. (I must have been six or seven.) My Dad then said that this isn't something we should talk about, because most people don't know about it.
This stands out as a demonstrably false memory from childhood. Clearly, there is no such tunnel (unless people really are doing a good job of keeping it under cover). So why do I remember being told about it? This may have been a particularly vivid dream which for some reason I don't remember as a dream. Or I may have been watching TV with my folks, asked them a question, and then misunderstood the answer. It's also possible that it did happen and my Dad was pulling my legnot out of the question by any meansbut my parents have no recollection of ever playing any such joke on me.
So I have this false memory. This one stands out because I know it's false, but it makes me wonder how many false memories I have rattling around in my head that I simply take for granted as real experiences?
We also have this ability to edit memories to make them more tolerable and even erase the ones we no longer want:
At the annual meeting of the US Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans last month, Anderson's group presented new data on how this "motivated forgetting" might arise in the brain. When people tried to suppress memories for certain words while having their brains scanned in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, not only did the researchers see a dampening of activity in the hippocampus, a structure known to be critical for memory formation, but the frontal cortex was highly active. Since the frontal cortex is important for conscious control, they believe that neurons here may be suppressing the representation of the unwanted word in the hippocampus, and in the process impairing its memory.
The article goes on to explain how certain drugs can benefit this natural process of "motivated forgetting," helping people who have been through serious trauma from developing post traumatic stress disorder. I wonder. Will we soon have the option of forgetting not just the traumatic, but the unpleasant? You know that stupid and embarrassing thing you said that time, years ago, the one that still pops into your mind from time to time, causing you to cringe even now? If you could highlight that memory in your brain and then click Delete, would you? Should you? Will people make themselves forget about jobs they didn't like? Relationships? Historical events that piss them off?
I can certainly think of a few items I would be tempted to drop in the old recycle bin. I'd be tempted, but I'm not sure that I'd do it. I already dislike the idea that I'm carrying false memories around, and that I may have suppressed some important stuff from memory. I think the knowledge that there were things that I had chosen to forget would drive me crazy. I'd want to know what they were!
I wonder if there would be any way of getting them back?