Breakthrough: Is Inception Possible?
The brain is the organ that has makes everything we think, feel and do possible, and yet there is still so much we don’t understand. Tonight’s episode of groundbreaking science documentary Breakthrough looks at the revolutionary research taking place in the field of neuroscience.
Dr. Steve Ramirez has just completed his PHD at MIT in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa and is a regular feature in ‘Great thinkers under 30’ lists. His work revolves around using light to activate specific memories in the brain and changing the intensity to which they are recalled. In 2012 he successfully implanted a false memory into the mind of lab mouse. That’s right, real life Inception.
In person, Ramirez is a charismatic young man with a fantastic repertoire for science fiction films. Speaking to TVGuide.co.uk and a group of other journalists, he is patient over our complete lack of scientific understanding yet excited about imparting knowledge over a subject he is clearly so passionate about. Asked if his line of work is basically Inception, he laughs and says: “More or less – no one understands Inception!”
His self-professed ambition is to turn memory into an anti-depressant. There are many thousands of people out there suffering from severe psychological trauma, and with his work he hopes to manipulate memories to both highlight the good and lessen the impact of the traumatising.
This sort of research, however, prompts immediate ethical questions. Is a person still the same person when their memories are manipulated? Surely, memories are an enormous part of what makes us… well, us.
“They did a poll and about 80% would not want to manipulate their memories, and that makes sense because most of our memories are [experiences] we learned from. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from our break-ups. It’s really good to remember not to put your hand on the stove – things like that. It’s evolutionarily advantageous,” said Ramirez.
“That said, I’m coming at this from the privileged perspective of not being an assault victim, or being around a tragedy like war or something that not only keeps you up at night but can be socially debilitating. Coming at it from that perspective, I think there would be a higher percentage of people who would like to use it in a therapeutic manner.”
“This is a topic full of ethical ramifications and my way of responsibly addressing that is if you’re a psychiatrist you don’t give prozac to the whole population of London, you give it to the clinically relevant population of people who need it. You give it to the person with depression. If memory manipulation were ever to become a thing in people, it shouldn’t be for Steve who can’t get over a high school break up, it should be for the war veteran coming back with PTSD or the person riddled with anxiety disorder, or the person with schizophrenia or the person with depression. In that case, memory manipulation should only be used in the context of therapy. It begins to prevent the possibility of misuse and it also becomes a beneficial thing.”
Asked if his work has the potential to completely change one’s personality, Ramirez said:
“One myth of memory is that it’s like a tape recorder of the past. It’s not a tape recorder of the past. Memory is a reconstructive process, every time you recall the memory it becomes susceptible to modification. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where you and a significant other are arguing about what happened the night before and you remember it very differently, right?
“It is really easy to modify particular memories and we do that when we recall them. It says a lot about our identity too it’s this like ever-changing thing that ebbs and flows throughout time. The extreme case with memory manipulation would be yeah, changing a person’s identity. But again, we wouldn’t do that for sport. It would be in a therapeutic manner or in a clinical setting.”
Watch the work of Dr. Steve Ramirez and other cutting-edge neuroscientists tonight on Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain, directed by Hollywood visionary Brett Ratner.
Breakthrough: Decoding The Brain premieres Sunday 15th November 10pm on National Geographic Channel.