Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a leading researcher in false memories in humans. He said that the latest results were an important first step in understanding their neural basis.
“Memory researchers have always recognized that memory does not, as is often assumed, work like a video camera, faithfully recording all of the details of anything we experience. Instead, it is a reconstructive process, which involves building a specific memory from fragments of real memory traces of the original event, but also possibly including information from other sources,” he said.
However, he added that the false memories created in the mice in the experiments were far simpler than the complex false memories that have generated controversy within psychology and psychiatry, such as false memories of childhood sexual abuse, or of bizarre ritualized satanic abuse, abduction by aliens or “past lives.”
“Such rich false memories will clearly involve many brain systems and we are still a long way from understanding the processes involved in their formation at the neuronal level,” French said.
Oxford University neuroscientist Mark Stokes said the experiments were a tour de force, but that it was important to put them into perspective.
“Although the results seem to imply that new memories were formed by the artificial stimulation [rather than the actual environment], this kind of phenomenon is still a long way from most people’s idea of memory,” he said.
Rather, it was equivalent to implanting an association that perhaps someone cannot place, but makes them wary of a specific environment for no apparent reason, Stokes said.
“It is unlikely that this kind of pairing could lead to the rich set of associations related to normal memories, although it is possible that over time such pairing could be integrated with other memories to construct a more elaborate false narrative,” he added.
The mouse models created by the MIT team will help scientists ask ever more complex questions about memories in people.
“Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy,” said Steve Ramirez, a colleague of Tonagawa’s at MIT.
“Are there multiple conditions that lead to the formation of false memories? Can false memories for both pleasurable and aversive events be artificially created? What about false memories for more than just contexts ? False memories for objects, food or other mice? These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab,” Ramirez said.