On the one hand, memories are subjective, almost magical, intimate snapshots preserving the diverse array of colors of an individual’s life. On the other hand, memories are nothing more than a series of chemical and physical changes taking place in the brain, which cause nerves to fire, sending electrochemical impulses to other nerves.
While a great deal is still not understood about making, storing, and retrieving memories, some pretty remarkable things are being discovered about memory these days.
The Brain Can Store Way More Memories Than Thought
Researchers at the Salk Institute recently discovered “a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience” when they concluded that the memory capacity of the brain far exceeds former estimates. While building a 3D reconstruction of rat hippocampus tissue (the memory center of the brain), researchers determined there was a wide range of synapse sizes, about 26, rather than the the former classifications of small, medium, or large. The memory capacity of neurons is dependant on synapse size, which is the space between neurons. More synapse sizes means a lot more room for memory storage.
Memory capacity of brain is 10 times more than previously thought, explains it like this:
‘Our data suggests there are 10 times more discrete sizes of synapses than previously thought,’ says Bartol. In computer terms, 26 sizes of synapses correspond to about 4.7 ‘bits’ of information. Previously, it was thought that the brain was capable of just one to two bits for short and long memory storage in the hippocampus.
Memories Can Pass Between Generations
A mouse study found that fearful memories of a smell could be passed on through genetic code from parent to pup without the offspring ever having experienced the smell. While the biological mechanism explaining this phenomenon hasn’t been directly identified, it’s thought that either some of the odor ends up in Dad’s bloodstream, affecting sperm or that a signal from the brain was sent to the sperm to alter DNA. A similar phenomenon could be responsible for influencing inheritable tendencies, such as anxiety and addiction, in humans.
The process of the environment and experiences affecting the expression of an individual’s genes, which can in turn be passed on, is known as epigenetics. It’s known that humans inherit epigenetic alterations affecting behavior and health. For example, children who were conceived during an imposed food embargo, which resulted in famine in the Netherlands in the 1940s, were found to be at an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, possibly because of epigenetic alterations to their genes involved in these diseases.
The article, Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes, describes it this way:
Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.
There isn’t a scientific consensus yet about which experiences alter DNA, how far they are passed on to later generations, or how this is accomplished exactly.
Implanting and Erasing Memories May Soon Be Possible
Scientists working with mice have made stunning breakthroughs in negating the emotional charges associated with bad memories, even erasing them altogether in some instances.
In one study, scientists selectively erased drug-associated memories in meth addicted mice and rats without affecting other memories or the ability to make new ones. By injecting the rodents with a compound that acts on a protein necessary for memory formation, the meth-associated memories went away, along with their dendritic spines, the structures in the brain that store memories. The implications of this work for drug addicted humans is huge.
In another study, researchers found that an anesthetic gas, xenon, administered at precisely the right moment to rats, erased painful and negative associations with traumatic memories (which means less fear-like behaviors in a rat), neutralizing them. While information on studies in humans hasn’t been released yet, it’s possible that people with PTSD or debilitating nightmares would be able to give themselves a squirt of xenon, like an asthma inhaler, and zap problematic memories away.
Your Memories Can Live On After You’re Gone
There are companies now offering services that will allow you to keep your memories alive forever, digital memories, that is. The Eterni.me website reads: “Eternime collects your thoughts, stories and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you. This avatar will live forever and allow other people in the future to access your memories.”
The company promises to store information from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, e-mail, photos, video, location information, and even Google Glass and Fitbit devices while you’re alive. Upon your death, they contact a list of people you predetermine and give them access to your account of stored information. So, your great, great, great, great grandchildren will be able to see your Facebook updates and the pics from your beach trip in the summer of 2015.
The New Yorker article, How To Become Virtually Immortal, describes it like this:
The service’s defining feature is a 3-D digital avatar, designed to look and sound like you, whose job will be to emulate your personality and dish out bits of information to friends and family taken from a database of stored information. A user will be encouraged to “train” its avatar, through daily interactions, in order to improve its vocabulary and conversational skills. Eterni.me’s co-founder, Marius Ursache, thinks of it as a more advanced version of Siri, who, ten or fifteen years from now, will be able to “respond to questions more naturally, and learn from every conversation you have with her.”
There are other companies that offer related services: Legacy Locker and Entrustnet allow users to appoint an “executor” who carries out their digital wishes after death, including passing on account information to designated heirs. Deathswitch sends personalized messages to pre-selected contacts. Life.Vu offers online memorial pages for loved ones who have passed away. There are even “Living Headstones” available with QR codes that, when scanned with a smartphone, takes a person to a website for the deceased.
At first, the whole idea of my cyber memories hanging around after I’ve gone struck me as kind of creepy, but I have warmed up to it a little bit. Think about it. What’s going to happen to our digital identities and all of the information we amass as individuals online after we’re no longer here? And if technology is fast becoming an extension of our brains, is this kind of memory immortality any less real than if it were in our heads?
The Eterni.me website puts it this way: “Think of it like a library that has people instead of books, or an interactive history of the current and future generations.” What do you think?
image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pyride/