Northwestern Researchers Can Remember It For You Wholesale

Philip K. Dick's marvelous short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (from which the film Total Recall is taken) is a story about identity and memory. In the story, a company called Rekal, Inc. is able to send you on a "vacation" by implanting a set of false memories. When the procedure is completed, you remember having taken the trip:

"Is an extra-factual memory that convincing?" Quail asked.

"More than the real thing, sir...our analysis of true-mem systems - authentic recollections of major events in a person's life - shows that a variety of details are very quickly lost..." (Read more)


(From Total Recall)

Northwestern scientists have been studying false memories, which lie at the center of a variety of societal disputes, including the validity of repressed memories from traumatic events, as well as ordinary testimony in a criminal trial. Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology, the researchers are trying to understand how it is possible to form a "memory" of an event that didn't actually happen.

What they found is that a vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace in the brain that is similar to that of a real event. Some of the same brain areas are used whether an object or event is actually perceived or only imagined.

Here's how the test worked:

For this procedure of measuring brain activity, people lay down in an MRI machine as they looked at a screen with a series of words, all concrete nouns, and pictures, and they wore head phones to hear what was being said. They were instructed to generate a visual image corresponding to each object that was named. For half the words, a photographic image of the object was presented. The subjects were told to make no response to photos, but only to look at each one while waiting for the next word.
Following this procedure, the subjects were given a set of words, and were asked if they had been shown a picture of that word. Three brain areas (precuneus, right inferior parietal cortex and anterior cingulate) were found to show greater responses to words that would be falsely remembered as having been shown with a picture.

The new finding showed that different brain areas are critical for accurate memories, as opposed to false remembering. The investigators of this study are not quite ready to found a company like Rekal, Inc. - but they are getting closer.

From Northwestern researchers pinpoint how false memories are formed.

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