I remember when I first watched this clip. I thought that, while it was impossible, it was nevertheless one of the coolest ideas ever.
Now is when neuroscience is starting to get scary cool.
Some of you might be thinking that I can’t be hinting that uploading memories into someone is within reality, but I am.
Researchers at the University of Southern California recently designed a cortical neural prosthesis (or an artificial neural system) for restoring or enhancing memory (Berger, Hampson, Song, Goonawardena, Marmarelis, & Deadwyler, 2011). This device isn’t a typical artificial neural network, but instead is a device that is capable of recording neural signals during a task and producing those signals itself once it has recorded them. In an experiment, this neural prosthesis recorded the activity of rats successfully completing a complex, trial-by-trial task that could not be done on the first try:
The behavioral testing apparatus for the DNMS [delayed-nonmatch-to-sample] task is the same as reported in prior studies (Deadwyler and Hampson 1997, 2004, Hampson et al 2008) and consists of a 43 × 43 × 50 cm Plexiglas chamber with two retractable levers (left and right) positioned on either side of a water trough on one wall of the chamber (figure 1). A photocell with a cue light activated nose-poke (NP) device was mounted in the center of the opposite wall. The chamber was housed inside a sound-attenuated cubicle. The DNMS task consisted of three phases: (1) sample phase: in which a single lever was presented randomly in either the left or right position; when the animal pressed the lever, the event was classified as sample response (SR), (2) delay phase: of variable duration (1–30 s) in which a nosepoke (NP) into a photocell was required to advance to the (3) nonmatch phase: in which both levers were presented and a response on the lever opposite to the SR, i.e., a nonmatch response (NR), was required for delivery of a drop of water (0.4 ml) in the trough. A response in the nonmatch phase on the lever in the same position as the SR (match response) constituted an ‘error’ with no water delivery and a turning off of the lights in the chamber for 5.0 s. Following the reward delivery (or an error) the levers were retracted for 10.0 s before the sample lever was presented to begin the next trial. Individual performance was assessed as % correct NRs with respect to the total number of trials (100–150) per daily (1–2 h) session.
After recording the neural activity from successful completions of the task, some of the rats were given minipumps to infuse specific areas of their brain with a drug designed to block memory recall. This drug was infused chronically. These rats that did not have the neural prosthesis activated could not successfully complete the task. The rats that did have the neural prosthesis activated, however, could successfully complete the task. When the prosthesis was activated, they could complete the task; but when it was deactivated, the very ones who could complete it before, couldn’t. The neural prosthesis gave them the mental ability to do the task; it gave them the memory.
Now, you might be thinking, “well, perhaps it works when it records one individual’s neural activity, but it won’t work for another person, because everyone’s neural activity is different.” However, that’s not very accurate. Yes, there are differences in neural activity in most everyone, but those differences are functional rather than anatomical. What I mean by that is even though many people might display different activation under an fMRI, the neural basis of memory is still the same: fMRI scanners can actually read your mind (more on this next post). Because of that, neural information recorded in the right spots of one person’s brain while doing something would transfer seamlessly into someone else’s brain and allow them the same abilities.
Let me make a quick mental note on the philosophy of mind, as someone actually brought this article up to me, questioning if it made a difference for dualism. I’d say that it doesn’t. Even on interactionist dualism, the soul and the brain are still interdependent while embodied. This doesn’t affect the philosophy of mind any more than memory having a neural basis does.
So, while we haven’t yet taught someone how to fly a helicopter by uploading it into their brain, we’re not that far off.