SMOKE: Artificial Memory
Originally published: 14 March 2003
A bunch of US scientists are working on a new silicon chip which they hope one day will be used to replace the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory.
The idea is to replace damaged brain tissue (as in the case of Alzheimers patients) with a chip which is literally wired to the brain, in order for memory to work again.
It is believed that the hippocampus (which is located at the base of the brain, near the top of the spinal cord) is responsible for storing all our memories - from the time we were born - and if areas of this are damaged memory loss becomes inevitable.
The scientists are hoping that the chip will act as a conductor between the hippocampus and other areas of the brain, allowing normal functioning of the memory.
Since scientists still don't know how the hippocampus works - they simply copied its behaviour. They took a bunch of rat brains, stimulated them with electricity millions of times and observed what the hippocampus did with these signals.
They then copied the behaviour of the hippocampus onto a chip, in the hope that it will be able to work correctly when eventually they try it on humans.
Of course - they're expecting a bunch of protests, the bane of modern science.
When the first heart transplants took place people went dilly, complaining that our hearts belonged to God and all sorts of other nonsense. The scientists working on the memory chip expect the same reaction as the brain affects mood, awareness, consciousness and memory, all of which make up a person's personality.
But personally I think it's brilliant - there are a number of people who I believe could well do with some different memories and the resultant personality change.
Imagine if Mad Bob Mugabe remembered how cool it was to be nice to people, or if Mika Hakkinen remembered how to smile, or if I could remember where I stashed that briefcase all those years ago. It was somewhere near Three Sisters in the Karoo, but that's as far as I go.
The most obvious recipient of memory chips would be Alzheimers patients - folks like Ronald Reagan, who I'm sure would love to remember that he was once president of the United States.
When you encounter someone with Alzheimers it brings home just how important memory is to our lives as it gives us an identity - everything we've ever done, and the things we've learned from doing them, helps to make us what we are today.
If you take away a huge portion of it you're taking away a whole part of our lives, and us.
You'd have to be very careful not to give people false memories, however, or I suppose you could change the way they think and behave.
You wouldn't want Heinz Winkler believing that he could once sing, for example, and therefore pursue a career in it (oh - he already has - bugger), or Jonty Rhodes remembering his participation in satanic group orgies.
The movie Strange Days was based on a similar concept - you could wire your brain in to a memory device, which stores the memories of others, and live out their memories in a virtual world.
That was pretty cool, although it would certainly be devastating remembering a violent crime committed by someone other than you.
But what interests me most is the memory chip and Me. I could seriously use one of those babies - my memory doesn't extend further back than five minutes and what bits do float into my consciousness are often disjointed, and completely random.
I never mind anyone telling me the end of a movie, as by the time I watch it I can never remember the first thing about it. In the same manner I can watch and re-watch movies again and again - each time is a wonderful new experience.
However - I've spent most of my life suppressing memories, for very pointed reasons. I know that there's a whole bunch of bad shit back there and it's somewhere I don't really want to go.
No - what I'm after is some new memories, the sort of memories you can delight in and replay over and over again.
There's the Britney/Anna/Me one, as well as the time I came through the field at Monaco to pip Ayrton Senna for the 1993 drivers championship. Hitting the winning six in the World Cup final is another, as were my first steps on the moon.
I'd love to be able to remember being rich and how I got there, as well as a very different ending to the first time I had sex.
I'd like to remember how to make myself invisible, how to run 100 metres in 10 seconds, what it feels like to sing in front of 50,000 screaming fans at Wembley and what it's like to have a sense of smell.
Some people get all the cool memories.
All Smoked Out,