Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Simple Science: The Neuroscience of Memories

This post is the first in our Simple Science Descriptions series of pieces written with the Up-Goer Five Text Editor restricting writers to the ten hundred most used words in English. It's harder than you might think! Send your entries (preferably under 350 words) to jeanyang [at] mit [dot] edu.


I study the brain. When you think about it, the brain has made possible everything ever--from music to computers to hospitals, from kisses to high-fives to tears.

However, to me, there is one thing that the brain does that is the most amazing act in the world, and yet it happens every single day just in between your ears: the art of memory. When you think back to your first date, what you had for lunch today, or who you were as a child, you're actually cutting through time and feeling everything that makes memory so important, so story-like. It is who you are and what gives you a sense of "you" as the days and months and years go by. It is what goes away when some brain pieces break down and become broken thoughts.

Your brain is actually very much like the brain of other animals, such as the small, cat-hating, fast-moving animals that so often come out to eat at night and scare people to jump onto their chairs. To study the tiny pieces of the brain that make memory possible, I put on a clean, white, almost dress-like long-armed shirt and play with these animals each day. While doing so, I also can make their brain cells to respond light. Send some light into the brain and, as if part of a movie that you know was a lot of money to make, you can now control thoughts with flashes of light. My work can also take this a step further: it is now possible to find out which brain cells are holding on to a single memory, to make only those cells respond to light, and then to use the very same light to turn memories on or off, or even make new ones! Imagine being able to turn off memories that sometimes force people into a never-ending, deep-blue state of pain on the inside, or to turn on the kind of memories that remind us how happy of a thing life can be. So far, this is only in animals but, after all, we are animals too, just ones with bigger brains that know how to read and write and reason.

This is my work, and the age of memory control is here.

- Steve Ramirez, Ph.D. student in Neuroscience

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