The strange but true science of memory erasure – The Irish Times

When I decided to write a speculative fiction novel, I knew I wanted to keep the scope personal and the science believable. I like sci-fi epics with space empires and aliens as much as the next humanoid – but what I really like is sci-fi with a real feel, character-centered, and ideally set in a familiar world. Our lives, in short: with a fundamental difference. When I scroll through TV shows, I’m looking for something I can’t resist interrupting and annoying my partner by starting an argument (okay: monologue) about how I personally would react to this or that situation.

No, I absolutely would not separate my consciousness to create a work self and a home self. But I can upload it to a digital heaven after my death. will?

My own novel, Show Me an End, occupies the same ground: that of ‘what if’ and ‘will you’. What if we could erase the memory of short periods of time? And then, after it was discovered that these memories weren’t actually gone forever, but could be retrieved – would you like to know what you’ve been paid to forget?

I thought the science side of this would be easy; that I was in the field of thought experiment. The day I googled ‘memory removal’, I thought it was impossible to remove memories in real life. I was just checking to see what other fic had covered the same ground so I didn’t accidentally plagiarize anyone.

What the search results actually showed was a large amount of real-life research—apparently showing that not only is memory removal possible, but it’s much closer than I’d realized. I called my academic friend and cried until she gave me her NCBI login. When I searched scientific journals about memory change, I found pages and pages of studies.

A major shift in the way we understand memory has occurred relatively recently, with Karim Nader’s research in the late 1990s. Since Plato, stored memory was thought to be a stable thing. Nader proved that this was not the case: that the very act of remembering makes memory itself vulnerable to loss or change. To explain it very simply: every time we remember something, the memory is effectively reconstructed by proteins in the brain. But if something happens that disrupts or colors the memory at that point, it will be different the next time we remember it. Memory is not written in stone: it is more like a photocopy of a photocopy.

Nader and various other scientists have since demonstrated that if the formation of these memory proteins is blocked or destroyed, the memory disappears. Mice can be trained to fear a musical note, before an injection removes that fear. We don’t know how the mouse feels about this experience, so this technique has not yet been tested in humans. But studies have successfully used anti-anxiety drugs to remove the emotional component of patients’ traumatic memories, years after the original events. Patients were able to remember what had happened to them, but the intense fear and panic that accompanied the flashback had been removed.

I read all this not in awe of human achievement, but with the panic of a writer with a concept to defend. I was worried that by the time it was published, my book wouldn’t be speculative fiction, but just… fiction.

Also, I couldn’t just wade my way through some scientific explanation of the molecular structure of memory, because that—unlike, say, stranger (why didn’t I write about aliens?) – it was not uncharted territory. I ended up spending a long time researching. With the result that, excluding the technology development of my own fictional company Nepenthe, all the science referenced in the book is real. When a psychologist friend of mine read an early draft, he singled out one of the studies as implausible. it it’s unbelievable: a doctor in the seventies using electroshock treatment to remove his patients’ memories. It is also true.

Some readers and reviewers have called Tell Me An Ending ‘dystopian’, which is funny, because it may not be long before we live in this dystopia. But I don’t think there’s necessarily cause for alarm.

First of all, memory manipulation may offer a real chance for recovery for PTSD sufferers.

And second, while the idea of ​​losing a paragraph of your life story can be unsettling, it can be comforting to know that your memories are changing all the time: merging with other memories, losing parts, gaining new elements. , disappear altogether. Scientist Elizabeth Loftus showed how easy it is to manipulate the memory of eyewitnesses by introducing new cues at the point of recall. And a study conducted after 9/11 found that people’s memories of what they were doing when they heard about the attack changed significantly in the months and years that followed. Even these were not small changes: some of the respondents remembered being in a different place or in the company of different people. Whether this comforts or worries you, it shows that memory has never been a reliable reference point.

However, there They are possible vulnerabilities of memory removal. Technology itself is neither good nor bad. Like nuclear fission, it is an essentially neutral concept. But given how people tend to have no problem exploiting or harming other people for personal gain, you might wonder whether the ability to erase memories would be a good thing in the hands of repressive regimes — or large Western corporations. .

In Tell Me An Ending I tried to avoid moral judgments or easy answers when it came to the characters, and I’ve taken the same approach with technology. There are a number of sequels in the book, topologies that go from ‘u’ to ‘dys’ and various states in between. As for whether any of these predictions actually come true: I’ll be watching with interest.

Tell Me An Ending by Jo Harkin (Hutchinson Heinemann) is out now.

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