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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

MIT’s False Memory Implantation Experiments Could Have Sinister Consequences for the Future

Almost everyone has heard of the film “Inception.” This movie came out a few years ago, but even with the passing of another awards show, people still talk about how Leonardo DiCaprio should have gotten an Oscar by now. The concept of inception—the process of coding a thought or memory into someone’s mind (creating a false origin)—was popularized in the film. Since that film, the concept has been immortalized as parodies in countless memes. What was once only a concept in a category thought to be fiction has now come a little closer to reality.

A recent study at MIT has shown that the ability to implant false memories is no longer fiction, because even this is somehow more plausible than DiCaprio getting an Oscar.

According to a 2013 Guardian article, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics and his team encoded memories in the brains of mice by manipulating individual neurons. The study placed mice in a maze and conditioned them to fear one of the chambers. These same mice were then placed into a new chamber that they did not fear and were exposed to blue light that activated a region of their brains to recall the fear that they experienced in the first chamber. The result was that the mice feared the new chamber based solely on forced memory recall—incepting a feeling of fear that was associated with a separate chamber. The science is there—but so is the question of how and why it should be used, if at all.

The intended application is to aid soldiers with PTSD, but this kind of technology is ripe for misappropriation. It would be a different world if we did not have the confidence that our thoughts were our own.

Can we be certain that this discovery would not be used to influence people’s emotions against their will? Or even create more blindly obedient soldiers that don’t fear death? What is to stop this kind of information from falling into the wrong hands and being abused? Perhaps what is imagined in the realm of some fiction should stay there, especially if the potential harm outweighs the prospective good.

One of the main sources of pride in America is its focus on everyone’s access to freedom of speech; it’s the land of the free and the brave. This ability to plant false memories itself is a threat to this ideology. A person’s memories are what make them who they are and allow them to make the choices that make them free. Without this guarantee, the notion of freedom is not safe.

When John Locke coined the phrase of the right to “life, liberty, and property”—the latter of which was changed to “pursuit of happiness”—he probably was not thinking that he would have to add that society has a right to its memories. Even the notion of the right to own property has an unintended meaning when considered in this modern world where intellectual property is now on the same plane of importance as physical property. This new finding will inevitably force another amendment to be made in its wake—which isn’t a negative in itself, but the laws will lag behind game-changing discoveries such as the one made at MIT.

For now, the general public does not have to worry about having thoughts incepted in them by the government. The study at MIT is only in the beginning stages of research on the subject. The research has its flaws and limitations, and for now they are only able to induce the feeling of fear through memory recall.

The current question the team at MIT is still trying to answer is whether it’s possible to elicit the same behavioral response—not just the memory of fear—by activating the same neurons in the hippocampus. The question they have not posed is what will come after they have figured this out and are able to consistently reproduce the desired outcome.

The morality debate hasn’t come to fruition for false memory implants since it is a new discovery still, but it would not be the first time that morality has clashed with scientific advancements. Embryonic stem cell research is one of the greatest examples of this dichotomy due to the research that has the potential for curing many diseases, but at the cost of the destruction of the embryonic stem cell.

The question is whether or not the embryonic cell is even a human yet—which is by no means a new notion—and this problematizes the scientific testing on the cells. The fact is that while there is a potential positive outcome in the advancements of science, there will always be a cost. Hopefully, the empirical world of science does not forget its humanity.