Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Black Mirror's Memory-Enhancing BMI

The grain: contact lenses attached to a
processor/transmitter/memory chip
 implanted just behind the ear. 
Seen Black Mirror, the smart, fun, creepy British TV drama on Netflix? It's a kind of an update of The Twilight Zone. Each episode has a different situation, set, and cast, but all deal with the alternately progressive and sinister effects of IT on our near futures. The third episode, “The Entire History of You,” considers the effect of a device, called a “grain” (as in brain the size of a rice grain)  that combines Google Glass-like contact lenses and a processor/transmitter implanted behind the ear. Just about everyone's got one—you’d have to be a Luddite not to!--and people are constantly replaying their experiences, either for each other on ubiquitous TV screens or privately on the inside of their own lenses. The device is perfectly plausible. 

The episode follows a married couple struggling over the wife's relationship with an old beau. The husband's suspicions, which seem obsessive, controlling, and self-fulfilling at first, are eventually validated by "re-dos," the playing back of experiences captured by the wife's video implants. On one hand, the grain helps the couple face the truth of the betrayal. And facing the truth is good. Right?  Well, yes. On the other hand, the obsessive re-experiencing of the past leaves no room for a tolerable present, let alone a viable future. They're marriage is doomed. The accumulated weight of their past sinks it like a stone. And they're not alone; it's hard to imagine anyone getting over themselves in such a continuously-recorded and replayed world. 

Which brings me to my new favorite subject. Namely, the neurological mechanisms of controlled forgetting. Without ignoring we’d be lost in a phantasmagorical avalanche of data overload. And without forgetting, we’d be unable zero in on the present. Maybe it is exactly our loose grasp on the past that keeps us attentive to the present and invested in the future. UC Santa Cruz experimental psychologist and memory expert Benjamin Storm says, “the goal of memory is to serve our future behaviors so that we behave more adaptively, not to give us the truth about the past.”

In fact, according to a new cadre of neuroscientists, forgetting the details of the past is one of our brain's major accomplishments.  Whereas neuroscientists once assumed forgetting was just memory’s failure, it turns out forgetting has its own mechanisms, rules, and triggers. It is a lot of neurological work to forget properly and well. 

More on the importance of forgetting soon. Meanwhile, watch “The Entire History of You.” 

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