Are there any memories you’d like to permanently remove from your head?
Or what if you could alter unpleasant memories so they’re no longer upsetting? Or create entirely new memories of events that never occurred?
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but according to a new documentary that premiered in the US this week, scientists have discovered how to do just that – and more.
“Memory Hackers,” from PBS’s NOVA documentary strand, looks at cutting edge research into the nature of memory, and how it might be manipulated for mankind’s benefit.
“For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays it intact,” say the film’s makers.
“But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories.”
Among the documentary’s subjects is Jake Hausler, a 12-year-old boy from St. Louis who can remember just about every single thing he has experienced since the age of 8.
Jake is the youngest ever person to be diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, which makes it difficult for him to distinguish between trivial and important events from his past.
“Forgetting is probably one of the most important things that brains will do,” says André Fenton, a prominent neuroscientist who is currently working on a technique to erase painful memories. “We understand only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human memory.”
Other interviewees include Julia Shaw, psychology professor at London South Bank University, who has designed a system for implanting false memories, and has successfully convinced subjects they’ve committed crimes that never took place – research that has potentially troubling ramifications for the criminal justice system.