Of mice and memories.
How well can animals remember? My instinct would be to answer, “not very well”, although I don’t move in the same social circles as dolphins and orang-utans and earthworms. Well, there is a cat that comes home at feeding time and makes straight for its feeding bowl, so I presume he has a memory of sorts although I can’t remember whether he does it every day or only every otherWednesday.
Some months ago, the cat alternated its visits with that of a mouse (almost as if they had planned it); the latter did not have a feeding bowl, but found something feed-worthy in my books, specifically in those written by George Orwell. For some reason, it made straight for Coming Up for Air and Animal
Farm. It was as if it knew exactly where to find Orwell in the house. Or maybe someone had planted a false memory in its brain, which caused it to mistake Orwell for a blob of cheese (thus do we reduce our greatest writers to dairy products).
Such a thing is possible, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tell us. They’ve successfully planted a false memory in the brains of mice. This even before it is fully established whether these rodents have any true memories at all. If you see confused mice scurrying about, looking for Orwell in the mistaken belief he is a kind of cheese, you can blame MIT.
You will soon have a Society for the Prevention of Confusion in Mice asking for government grants, but they can be easily dealt with. Just inject false memories into them and they’ll go away pleased they have raised a lot of funds.
Similarly with pay rise-demanding employees, lovers writing poems in the hope of winning the girl, income tax authorities, teachers demanding homework from students. Give them the old FM (false memory) treatment, and everyone wins. Sit at home and let FM do the rest.
Before MIT, only Hollywood had managed such a feat – planting false memories that worked twice over. First, in the movies where the bad guy replaces the good guy’s true memories with false ones, and then by replacing true memories of a terrible movie with false memories that tell us it is a great, Oscar-worthy production. I mean, look at Titanic.
In the end, memory itself will get a bad name. How will we know if a memory is true or false? As the philosopher said after dreaming that he was a butterfly: am I a man who once dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he is a man? Did you really read this or merely think that you did?
Suresh Menon is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.