Suresh Menon

Friday - - Contents -

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.

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