Memory Generation: The Science Behind Learning Instantly

Recently, scientists from Duke University transferred the first piece of information directly between the brains of two rats — completely revolutionizing the field of brain-to-brain connection.

How recently?

Surprisingly, six years ago.

Unlike the widely known innovations such as the iPhone and Google revolutions, the field of brain-to-brain communication, and in general, the field of brain-computer interfaces has gone under the radar.

And in those six years of breakthrough after breakthrough, the field has progressed exponentially, with advancements such as basic mind-reading, brain-prosthetic controls, and even allowing a quadriplegic to use his hand.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

With all the complexity of the brain and its trillions of interneural connections, the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) operates on some simple, straightforward principles.

Simply put, a brain-computer interface utilizes computer algorithms to process, analyze and act based on electrical signals detected from the brain.

Even at rest, our neurons fire millions of times a second. Each neuron communicates with another through electrical bursts known as action potentials, which, with large clusters of neurons, can be detected as an electrical signal. Since interneural communication dictates the detected electrical potential, a reading of brain signals over time can be reverse-engineered to provide insight into our thoughts, emotions, and intentions.

Currently, the most popular method of recording brain-waves is known as electroencephalography (EEG). EEGs use a series of non-invasive, wearable sensors to accurately measure oscillations of electricity. Research in the field of BCIs has progressed to the point of using EEGs to analyze emotions, as well as to convert thoughts into prosthetic motion.

A man wearing a portable EEG device from leading developer NeuroSky. The model shown above, known as Muse, retails for $99 and comes with a smartphone interface to track focus in real-time.

Despite the numerous applications that EEGs promise in industries from medicine to transportation, EEGs face some inherent technological shortcomings, such as price, and low spatial resolution (ability to accurately trace the locations of signals).

Memories and Voltage

So, how does this relate to the memory transfer on rats explained earlier?

Electricity.

That’s all that memory is.

Every single experience you can recall, every new dish you’ve tried, every person you’ve met, and almost every sight you’ve ever seen, was once a blitz of current flowing throughout the billions of neurons in your brain.

In the process of utilizing short-term working memory (eg., memorizing a phone number), thousands of interneural signals course through the visual and linguistic areas of your brain in an instant. In the scenario of working memory, these signals migrate to the prefrontal cortex, where they subsequently diminish. This effect contributes to why the majority of people would find it nearly impossible to recall the same digits many hours later.

In terms of long-term memories, the electrical potentials transfer once more to the hippocampus to be stored and associated with emotions. When memories relocate to the hippocampus for long-term storage, they can be interpreted directly through electrical readings.

On its own, the conversion and recording of memories through electrical signals is a marvel — allowing us to monitor the growth and decay of memories over time. Imagine tracking the learning performance and retention levels of millions of students worldwide, and having new insights into the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Reading memories is one matter, but what if we could recreate these memories by replicating the exact electrical signal found in the hippocampus?

This realization was the same one that the Duke scientists stumbled upon — electrically stimulating regions of the brain allowed them to replicate, enhance, and create entirely new memories.

This discovery took the research to a whole new level.

Now, imagine millions of students downloading terabytes of information directly into their vast, unused long-term memory stores. Where neurodegenerative diseases sap the brain of every single memory, each one can be automatically detected and regenerated, completely eradicating diseases such as dementia.

In the scenario of memory transfer between the two rats, the stored visual-sensory experience of the first rat is electrically read and replicated onto the hippocampus of the second rat through electrical stimulation.

A more descriptive view of the Duke study setup for information transfer in rats. The “decoder” rat on the right is stimulated with input from the “encoder” rat, making their collective performance much more efficient.

In the process of the Duke study, the two rats were separated and exposed to identical rooms. Each room consisted of a lever and an LED. Once a lever was pushed directly after a flash of light, the rats would receive a reward. One of the rats was made to attempt the puzzle first. Researchers recorded the real-time activity of this rat’s hippocampus. When the other rat received the same signal through stimulation when in the puzzle, it was shown to exhibit drastically enhanced performance in the test.

As if the impact wasn’t remarkable enough, the results from the study showed that the rats conquered a task at a much higher level than either’s intelligence alone. Not only did the trial validate the possibility of a future of free information, but it opened up prospects for intelligent collaboration between humans as well.

Takeaways

  • Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are a rapidly developing field that is largely going under the radar.
  • BCIs use devices such as electroencephalograms (EEGs) to analyze, process and perform physical actions using electrical signals generated from the brain.
  • Similar to recording signals from any area of the brain, we can specifically record electrical signals from the hippocampus to access long-term memory.
  • In reverse, these brain signals can be fed as electrical stimulation into the hippocampus, allowing old memories to be enhanced and new ones to be generated.
  • Advancements in memory transfer technology in humans could allow of instant information downloads, recreation of consciousness, as well as combined higher intelligence.

In the grand scheme of things; however, this is just one study in the ever-expanding field of memory transfer, which, in itself, is a speck in the vast cosmos of BCIs. Six years is all it took from going to bulky, super-cooled devices to highly advanced prosthetics, mind control, and telepathy, so imagine what’s next.

Imagine a future, where, instead of walking off to school to pack information into your head for six hours, a two-second download is all it would take to get a university-level education. Imagine the end of mental diseases and lack of education. Think of a day where you could upload your entire conscious thought onto a chip, cementing yourself into the fabric of the universe forever. All in all, everything we’ve done in the field of BCIs has been leading us down the right path — the right path to a brighter, happier, and smarter world.

I write about things every week(ish).