Tricking the Mind’s Eye

By Jon Sung | Stardate 69321.4 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

It’s stardate 44885.5, and Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge is about to have the worst road trip of his life. While on the way to a cybernetics symposium on Risa, the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise is waylaid by Romulans in a cloaked warbird, who strap him into a terrifying-looking brainwashing machine. Their goal: to turn him into a sleeper agent in a plot to permanently sour relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. To cover it up, they send a Geordi impersonator to Risa and fill the real Geordi’s head with realistic — but completely fake — memories of the great time he had there.

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The Romulan plan nearly succeeds: in a chillingly lucid trance state, Geordi beams Federation weapons to a rebel Klingon colony and nearly kills their governor, but luckily for everyone, Lt. Commander Data is there to figure it all out and prevent a diplomatic disaster. With the Romulan scheme uncovered and his conditioning neutralized, all that’s left for Geordi is the painful process of peeling away those fake memories of Risa in order to find the real ones of his harrowing captivity, with the help of Counselor Troi.

Post-hypnotic suggestion: we’ve all been there, right? Or at least we’ve seen it done? Stage hypnotists can temporarily implant funny or embarrassing behaviors in willing subjects for the sake of entertainment, but it’s another thing entirely to plant convincing memories made from whole cloth directly into someone’s brain tissue. Scientists at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris are doing some interesting research with mice that might one day lead us there.

Their technique rests on an interesting and relatively newly discovered feature of the animal brain: place cells. Place cells are neurons that fire whenever we think of locations in physical space; different place cells fire for different locations. Here’s what they did:

  1. The Parisian team watched the activity of place cells in mice as they explored a set of new locations and took notes, making sure to identify a particular cell that only fired when the mice went to a certain nondescript location.
  2. When the mice went to sleep, the scientists continued to watch their place cells as the mice dreamed about what they’d done that day.
  3. When the place cell for the chosen unremarkable spot fired, the researchers used another set of electrodes to light up the brains’ reward centers.
  4. When they woke up, the mice went straight to the spot the researchers had picked, even though there was actually nothing there: the scientists had created a new memory that linked the unexceptional location with the feeling of reward.

As a first step, it’s fascinating. If it turns out we can do the same for humans and isolate the brain cells associated not just with places, but also people, objects, and even abstract concepts, things get simultaneously more interesting — and potentially scary. Imagine: you could use this technique to help repair broken relationships or make people less racist by forming reward memories associated with estranged friends or individuals of other ethnicities they’d met. On the flipside, someone with fewer scruples could also use this procedure to imprint particular brand loyalties on subjects, or trick them into enjoying an odious or abusive job — possibly even the idea of killing a coworker, provided it’s something they’d thought about before.

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That last bit is important: it’s the primary weakness of this method of memory creation in a few important respects. For one thing, the technique is dependent on basing at least part of the new memory on something that exists in the subject’s brain already. The researchers couldn’t direct mice someplace they’d never been before; they could only form reward memories around a spot they’d already visited. Also, mouse brains are relatively simple compared to human ones, which we’re still figuring out how to map. It may turn out to be technologically impossible to isolate the neurons in humans that are associated with a particular person, place, or thing. Taken together, these make it seem very hard indeed to craft a person a whole new memory from scratch by zapping their brain tissue, much less give it all the detail needed to make it a convincing one. For right now, the Geordi LaForges of the world can rest easy and enjoy their cocktails and word games — the Romulans and their memory-faking machine have a lot more work ahead of them.

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Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.