Memory Distortions in a Museum Tour – Mice (and fMRI) Tell the Truth

Memory is what artists work from: a face, a glance, a feeling… and that unspoken word, all rendered in pencil lines or paint strokes. But what really stand some artists apart are their distorted and tortured memories, real or imagined; and the twentieth century provided fertile ground. Many, from the Surrealists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte to the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists of the 1960s, onto the Conceptualists of the 1990s, play with their (and the audiences’) individual and collective memories. Here I have compiled a page of artists’ works on memory,  moving from the surreal to the too-real, abstract to the abject. *

Memories can be unreliable — so declared scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)** — after they successfully manipulated relevant brain neurons in mice to associate a shock to the foot with a cage (A) where the shock never happened. The scientists had delivered a shock to a foot of the mice in cage (B) at the same time when the mice were recalling previously pleasant memories of the cage (A). See report. (Just imagine how many of our innate fears have come to us this way?)

In another experiment at nearby Harvard’s psychology department, St Jacques et al conducted memory and recognition tests on subjects who had walked through a museum exhibition. Each subject wore an automatic camera shooting at 15-second intervals, recording what he saw on a prescribed tour. Those items or pictures the subjects saw were then replayed to them two days later, reactivating the memory while each lay inside an fMRI machine. But here is the twist. A few so-called “lures” — images that were NOT on the first tour — were also included. The results showed that many subjects recognized the “lures” as something they had seen on the first tour in a visual recognition test conducted another two days later.

Is it really such a bad thing to have faulty memories? First of all, memory updating is very important in our daily lives as we respond to new situations —  a fast car is now coming so I’d better stop crossing the street. And if I remain with the previous memory of seeing no car — well, disaster!

Not only does our brain continuously update our memory, it also uses the new information to hypothesize and predict the future so we know what to do next. The screeching car would then remind us that we could be hurt and to stop us on the track. However, such continuous updating, if left in our conscious attentional memory, would overwhelm us. Like the Argentine writer and poet, Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986), blind at age 56, in whom endless remembering and re-remembering was like infinite mirrors that reflect a slightly different image each time. The images may be vivid but they are not all real. *** He said (of his mentor), the Argentine writer and philosopher, Macedonio Fernández (1874 – 1952), “He really believed that we are all living in a dream world. Macedonio doubted whether truth was communicable”.****

Eric Kandel, the Nobel neurologist at Columbia University, in his 2012 book on art, mind and the brain — The Age of Insight — says (more optimistically) of our vision:

The image on the retina is first deconstructed into electrical signals… As these signals move through the brain, they are recoded and, based on Gestalt rules and prior experience, reconstructed and elaborated into the image we perceive. Luckily for us, although the raw data taken in by the eyes are not sufficient to form the content-rich hypothesis we call vision, the brain generates a hypothesis that is remarkably accurate. Each of us is able to create a rich, meaningful image of the external world that is remarkably similar to the image seen by others.

Well, seeing the same as others is apparently not what artists do. That’s creativity.   

*     The images are from  which allows unlimited copying for informational and educational purposes.

**    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Department of Biology and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.

***   See Borges’ 1942 short story, Funes the Memorius which is really his own meditation on insomnia. In the story he tells of Ireneo Funes, a poor farm boy who developed what we now would call Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) after having been thrown from a horse. HSAM, recent research has shown, is also prone to distortion. 

**** The Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, a Daoist writer who lived around 400 BC had famously recounted that one night he dreamed that he was a butterfly. He thus asked: during the day, am I living in a butterfly’s dream? He was connecting human consciousness with animal consciousness (a first in history, I think), which we now believe have a common evolutionary origin. See my post on consciousness. 



8/28/2014      Susumu Tonegawa, the neurobiologist from MIT and HHMI, who conducted the above quoted research on memory distortions in mice, just reported new research on the re-coding of  fear and other emotional  memories in mice. See Changing the Emotional Association of Memories. He wanted to know if an existing fear memory in mice could be replaced with a pleasant one—it could. This has huge implications for post-traumatic syndrome and others. The caveat here is that we do not do this willy-nilly. Eric Kandel, the Nobel neurobiologist from Columbia University who spent his life studying the cellular and molecular basis of memory, and who escaped the Nazis as a young boy, flying to America without his parents thinks that one needs to be very careful in removing memories. He said, referring to his time living in fear in Vienna under the Nazis: 

“You know, in the end, we are who we are. We’re all part of what we’ve experienced. Would I have liked to have had the Viennese experience removed from me? No! And it was horrible. But it shapes you.”  

6/24/2014      The Freud Museum’s (London) current exhibition is The False Memory Archive (6/11/ – 8/3/2014). It is a collection of vivid false memories and artists’ work on the subject. False memory is truly the stuff of art, and what better place to show it than at the Freud Museum!

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