In an article published on Extreme Tech yesterday (link below), the Neuroscience labs at MIT claim to have found the secret to memory and it’s neurons. Individual neurons. It’s a rather remarkable discovery considering that we had figured out so many other things about memory prior to this. For instance, we’d already figured out that there are areas of the brain that are dedicated to gathering and organizing specific kinds of memory. We also knew that information about memory is based on the relationships between the things we are currently experiencing and the things we’ve previously experienced. The idea that individual neurons are responsible for memory is a remarkable find that answers some questions about the way our minds work and raises so many others.
The researchers used a technique called optogenetics to create a lighting system for neurons in the brains of mice. I assume that this means that specific neurons fire (and give off light) when they’re activated during specific tasks. The researchers go on to argue that the we lose memories in a manner similar to the process described in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Because there was a movie reference in the article, it made me think about other movies revolving around memory loss and gain like Inception. In Inception, The characters literally implant a new memory into the brain of an unsuspecting individual. Given the plot line for that sci-fi blockbuster, and these recent discoveries about memory, it made wonder for a split second if one get a new neuron every time he or she form a new memory.
Because regrowing neurons is a rarity once they’re lost, that idea seems rather erroneous given conventional scientific wisdom. My neurology professors would kill me for even thinking that. I think it’s more likely that there’s a set limit of quantized information that our brains can hold. While this limit may vary from person to person, it would likely be dependent on (a) the number of neurons you have that are dedicated to memory and (b) the individual storage capacity of each of those individual neurons. Since most neurons are specialized to store or transmit specific kinds of information, it could be that once you’ve reached the limit on the amount of information your neurons can hold, the neuron would have to clear it’s cache based on the relative age and/or importance of the information. The older and less used the information is, the less important it is to us, and thus it likely gets deleted as we acquire new knowledge. This may be why we experience certain phenomena as infantile amnesia. It could also explain why Sherlock Holmes was particular about the kinds of things he studied extensively. Maybe knew something about the human mind that we didn’t.
In any case, all this talk of memory and forgetfulness reminds me of the Billy Collins poem “Forgetfulness.”
Disclaimer: This is just a theory and not a statement of fact. I love postulating about the human mind.
- MIT discovers the location of memories: Individual neurons (extremetech.com)
- MIT Scientists Pinpoint Location Of Memory; ‘Create’ And Manipulate Memory At Will!! (techie-buzz.com)