We have films stored in our neurons. Now that science has told us there is potential for storing information inside viruses or bacteria, which would, in effect, be a revolution in terms of computer technology, let’s suppose we take that one step further. Can we somehow access the information we have encoded in the cells in our brain and make them visible, as small films, on our computers? The potential is astonishing.
Perhaps, when dealing with persons who have memory impairment, these memories may still be hidden and encoded in their brain cells and we might be able to access them. True, it is the stuff of science fiction, but isn’t that what scientific advances are all about?
Scientists tell us that memories are stored in the brain in an extremely sophisticated manner and that no one place contains a specific memory. This, obviously, has utility in that if we were to receive a brain injury, we would still have access to the memories which we have stored over time. However, it presents another problem when considering how we might retrieve memories. And here I am referring specifically to our being able to retrieve memories in their full-blown reality in which they were originally stored. That sounds like something from an Isaac Asimov fiction novel, but considering the advances being made in neurosciences and computer technology, I think we need to begin to think, as they say, outside the box on this one, too.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we could bring back, restored and in full color as it originally happened, things from our past? Obviously, some of it might be quite traumatic, but other memories might be soothing and even therapeutic. We need to consider both possibilities and, of course, there needs to be some sort of gatekeeper here.
Who might the gatekeeper be? Would we be the ones who, without actually fully remembering what happened, bring it all back? How could we possibly know what we would find once we decided that we wanted the complete memory back? Rather than being therapeutic, could these fully retrieved memories be more damaging than we had ever conceived they might be? Here, we are once again working in unknown and extremely foreign territory in our brains.
The brain has not made it easy for us to retrieve much information, even information that we wish to bring back and which could be helpful. But, perhaps, the brain also protects us by splitting all of those little memory incidents into billions of pieces and scattering them all over that delightful orb. So, rather than being an extremely complex system to try to explore fully, the brain may be in many ways proactively protecting us and in other ways helping us to strive to think in original ways.
I’ve often said to my students that you cannot know the answers if you do not know the questions to ask. We may be at a point in time where we do not know the questions to ask and the answers are out there waiting for us to discover them.
Take a few minutes out and think about what you might like to retrieve. Are there loved ones with whom you had a few precious moments and which were recorded on no media other than your brain cells? Ridiculous? No, I don’t think so. How many of us have regretted not using what technology we have currently available to us in order to preserve moments with loved ones?
If that salesman in Dallas on that fateful day of November 22, 1963, had not taken his new film camera with him to the grassy knoll, we would not have any recorded film of the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. While that may be of use to historians and, for the rest of us, a gruesome reminder of what can happen even here in America, it points out how technology can assist us.
Remember back to holiday occasions that you may have had with your relatives. Okay, not all of these occasions were so wonderful because we don’t all have relatives who know how to behave. Some, unfortunately, use the occasion to vent their anger at others and bring up old tales that have been replayed over too many years. But there are other times when we hold precious ideas of our loved ones and would wish we could see them again in that context. Accessing those memories in our brains would be a wonderful gift, in that instance.
When science tells us that computer memory, which is now electronically stored on chips, might be stored in bacteria, we see a dramatic change in potential. We are going from electrical circuits to biochemical circuits and isn’t that what the brain uses, after all? The brain manages to utilize both electric and chemical encoders. Why, then, could we not write programs or think in an algorithmic manner to open up this potential?
I don’t know about you, but I would love to be able to bring back those films that are stored in my memory banks and to relive those joyful moments. No, I don’t want the people to suddenly appear in front of me. I would really prefer that they be on my computer. I do not want to be scared out of my wits by this technology. Yes, that’s a bit of humor because this is a potentially scary moment. As I said before, many times we really don’t know what we will be retrieving and, if we have no adequate gatekeeper, what will happen?
But imagine that we do have something like miles and miles of videotape or terabytes of memory which can be compartmentalized and utilized for our benefit. It is astonishing what we might be able to do. Think about what we might have done if we could have used the memory potential stored in the great thinkers of our time. Einstein, one of the truly great thinkers of the 20th century, obviously died with many, many more ideas that he wished to explore. All of these ideas were stored somewhere in his brain, which was preserved for research.
The research potential for brains of this type, at the present time, appears to be quite crude and rudimentary. We look at the structural mapping (if you wish) and the bumps in that structure to make certain determinations. Primarily, these determinations are ones of disease, deterioration or possible potential. But keep one thing in mind. The size of the brain is not really indicative of very much. We do have one case, at least, of a young girl who had very little brain material and an extremely large open area inside her cerebrum or grain (rind). She functioned just fine and her deficit was only captured once they did a scan of her head. It’s not the amount of brain tissue that you have, but the way in which it may be used either intentionally or incidentally by you.
Charlatans are out there who are telling you that they can help you increase your brain potential by using some sort of electric stimulation on your scalp. Others will tell you they have supplements which can increase your brain potential. Most of the research done on either of these products has been negative, yet these approaches are being sold to you via the media. One company has been fined for false advertising, but it continues to advertise.
Fans of Star Trek know that line about exploring the universe, but the true universe may be right here between our ears. Research should be stretching ever forward to find the mysteries that lay there, hidden now from our eyes and our understanding of reality. As I’ve said before, I still believe that medicine has barely scraped the potential in terms of curbing disease and maintaining health and I believe that moreso when it comes to the brain.
I am a firm believer that the exciting challenges to be met and the truly incredible findings to be revealed will come to us. But, for now, we are left with a question that teases all of us. The question: How much does the brain have for us in terms of knowledge and memory and how can we access it?