How to create a false memory – in someone else’s head

Imagine guerilla warfare taking place inside your brain

Some cells are, deliberately, targeted and destroyed. Others are manipulated on an individual, chemical level.

Insurgents, rebels, or hired neuro-mercenaries actively seek to implant, alter, or destroy memories inside another person’s mind.

Governments pass laws requiring all new babies to be fitted with memory modification devices allowing them lifetime access to the minds of their citizens.

The voice of Big Brother no longer booms its exhortations from the speakers on the street, but silently, in the propagandist memories in your mind.

Eye witness testimony, already on shaky ground, is deemed inadmissible in court, as every recollection is tainted by the threat of tampering.

Memory is what makes us who we are.

What if you couldn’t trust any of it… ?

Engineered memories are here.

Building memories

We know well that memory is a reconstructive process. Every time you activate a memory, the brain reconstructs it from the ground up, physically rebuilding the memory.

It’s the same when we build memories in the first place. Give a rat a maze and they can’t help but find their way through it, being the explorers that they are. This forms a pattern of brain activation unique to that memory.

While it sleeps that night, its brain will activate that circuit, over and over and over again, at breakneck speed, from start to finish, repeating it in order to consolidate the memory so that when it wakes up, it can remember how to run the maze.

This, in itself, is extraordinary. Given that different parts of memories are stored in different parts of the brain, memories must be accessed from multiple locations and then synthesized together, called binding, for you to remember.

The seeming ease with which we remember stuff belies how staggering a feat it really is.

We’ve also known we could interfere. Wake the maze-running rat while it’s replaying the circuit, and you interfere with the consolidation process, so it won’t remember how in the morning.

But what about creating memories.

MIT neuroscientists have done just that. And the thing is, the brain didn’t know the difference.

How they did it

It’s an impressive piece of science.

They did it by turning on the light. Last year, Susumu Tonegawa (Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and senior author of this research article, published Science, July 25), and his research team manipulated cells in the hippocampi of mice.

The hippocampi are those structures in the brain responsible chiefly for transferring short-term memories into long-term memories.

What the engineered cells did was express the gene for a groovy little protein known as channelrhodopsin. This protein activates the neuron it’s in when it gets stimulated by light, kind of like a jumpstart.

But in a clever next step, they then modified the gene so that the channelrhodopsin protein would be made whenever the c-fos gene, which is crucial for memory formation, was activated.

By putting mice in a particular chamber and giving them a mild electric shock, the mice learned to be afraid of the chamber, as they would normally. As this memory was formed, the c-fos gene was activated and, along with it, the modified, light-sensitive channelrhodopsin proteins.

The result was a real, physical, tangible memory, tagged with proteins that were sensitive to light.

MIT neuroscientists identified the cells (highlighted in red) where memory traces are stored in the mouse hippocampus (Photo: Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu / MIT)

The MIT team identified the cells (shown as red) where memory traces are stored in the mouse hippocampus (Photo: Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu / MIT)

The day after, when the mice were placed in a new, unfamiliar chamber they behaved as they normally would, sniffing and exploring.

But when the researchers administered a pulse of light directly to the hippocampus, they stimulated the memory cells that had been tagged with channelrhodopsin, which is sensitive to light. This activated the previous day’s memory, of fear.

Accordingly, the mice froze, overcome with fear.

So now that you could do this, could you play with a little more?

Tinkering in the brain

Skip to this year.

Day 1

The mice were put in one of four, new, unique boxes, Chamber A. As before, they start to explore, unafraid. No shocks were administered, and the mice behaved as normal.

Day 2

The mice are put in a new box, Chamber B, different from the first.

After a bit, the mice are given a gentle electric shock to the foot. It’s not harmful, but it is unpleasant. Immediately, of course, c-fos genes are activated and the mice start to make memories of this box and the fear, associating the two together.

As you know now, these memories will be light-sensitive, as channerhodopsin was also produced.

And here’s the cool bit

At precisely the same time as the shock, the mice were given a pulse of light to the light-sensitive neurons that had encoded the memory from the previous day, in Chamber A.

Day 3

The mice are placed back in Chamber A. Remember, nothing had happened here two days ago. They had sniffed and explored and encoded a memory of this chamber as normal.

And you can probably guess what happened now.

The mice froze.

Although they had never experienced fear in this box, they felt fear associated with Chamber A because, when the shock was given in chamber B on Day 2, they were experiencing the memory of being in chamber A.


A new, false memory, indistinguishable from others, and which subsequently affected what the mouse did.


And slightly spooky at the same time.

What if?


It’s a million miles from anything happening to people, but it does raise interesting possibilities about what you could do.

If you could…

Would you willingly alter some memories so they were more positive?

Would you willingly delete some memories entirely?

Would you willingly implant entirely false memories if it helped you feel better?

Is cosmetic memory alteration a good thing?

Would you condone altering the memories of others if they have suffered trauma?

Would you accept that, if we could do these things, they would also be used for ill?

So here’s the take home bit

Clearly we’re a long way from anything untoward and there’s nothing to fear. The possibilities, while tantalizing, are extraordinarily complex.

For now, we can be impressed by the really cool science they performed and, at the same time, aware of our own idiosyncrasies and weaknesses.

And tomorrow, will you trust what you remember?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat


What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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