Do you have trouble remembering jokes? Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A guy is standing in a room like he’s lost. His wife asks, “What are you doing?” The guy says, “Pondering the hereafter — pondering what I came in here after.”
You chuckle but might immediately forget the joke.
Brains love to remember stuff that has a pattern or a rhythm, but the punch line of a good joke veers 90 degrees from the predictable. That’s also what makes it hard to remember.
Rhythmic music with its measured regularity illustrates: It can too easily become an earworm. Music can also be a splendid mnemonic. Try teaching a very young child to remember 26 alphabet letters in proper order. You might never succeed. But sing them as the “alphabet song” and bam, she’s got it. And remembers.
There is no current complete cogent explanation of how you remember experiences or retrieve them. It’s complicated because memories are not isolated snapshots of external episodes; they’re accompanied by feelings, emotions, smells, sounds, etc.
Memories begin when sensory perceptions are encoded, like a computer encodes verbiage in ones and zeros. About 100 billion neurons (brain cells) and appendages called dendrites and axons receive and send encoded messages across one or more of the brain’s estimated 100 trillion gaps, called synapses. The messages come from and go to other neurons’ tentacles just across the gaps via chemicals and electrical impulses (neurotransmitters).
You can wake up now.
This incredibly complex spider web forms and reforms, according to one’s education, training, experiences. Initial memories may reside for only about 30 seconds, then may or might not be moved to long-term storage.
We now know that our long-term memory storage bin is an area called the hippocampus. Prior to 1953, it was thought that memories were a function of the brain as a whole, rather than of specific parts. Henry Molaison’s experimental operation for treating his epilepsy upended that notion. His hippocampus was severely damaged, leaving him a total amnesiac.
But Henry’s misfortune demonstrated that the hippocampus is where memories are processed and stored. And the hippocampus is where scientists have learned how the brain encodes and stores information and how to reverse-engineer the process.
Dr. Robert Hampson, neuroscientist at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and Dr. Michael Kahana, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, are key players. Their objective is to facilitate the memory capability of brain-impaired patients and, ultimately, of those experiencing age-related memory deficits.
Their end-game is a system similar to a heart pacemaker, a brain-implanted microchip wired to a small battery-powered controller surgically inserted beneath the skin. Data concerning memories germane to an individual’s past, e.g., will input to the microchip, which encodes it and sends it to other brain areas by sidestepping the faulty hippocampus.
This is not sci-fi folks, they are already experiencing success with research on people with epilepsy, and by 2021, Paradromics, a San Jose-based startup, plans to offer a similar system commercially.
Microchipping your brain, how totally rad. Heady stuff, but wrap your head around this: Princeton neuroscience professor Michael Graziano says the ability to upload your physical brain to an artificial brain may well be in our future.
Once accomplished, it won’t matter whether you forget or can retrieve memories; there will be a digital you that can be digitally debugged. Actually, it won’t matter whether you live or die; you’ll continue as a digital copy — or copies, if you’re a genius. If you fall short, you can simply be deleted.
Your “sim-me” (simulated me) will live in the digital cloud with a virtual body, where with an artificial neural network it will relate to you, others, and other “digital beings” through social media and various digital sources, just as we humans increasingly do today. Sim-me will learn and change, exactly as existing digital applications with artificial intelligence do already.
True, that begs the question of whether sim-me will still be you. Never despair, for that which can be uploaded from your brain to sim-me can likewise be downloaded from sim-me to your brain, assuming the proper microchip implant, of course. Think of it as your cybernetic update.
Sure, all of this demands technological advances, construction of an artificial brain with simulated neurons, ability to scan real neurons as they relate and act, and all that. And, of course, bandwidth will require expansion, to handle emotional, tactile, gustatory, and similar facets that infuse and attach to memories. Welcome to tomorrow.
Today, your approximately three-pound brain, roughly the size of two fists together, is still a marvel. You could store in that small blob an estimated 4.7 billion books. You’d never fill it up.
The most important takeaway from this article that you must remember is . . uh . . . . is . . uh . . .
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines writer, but only when he doesn’t forget that.