Penfield's idea, that a perfect transcript of each person's whole life is recorded in the brain, waiting to be awakened with a gentle electric current, has not proved true. But the idea that stored memories exist as physical changes within the brain has—and recent research is cracking open an array of possibilities for the editing and improvement of human memory. Even as our basic understanding of how memory is encoded, stored, and retrieved remains extremely limited, two separate teams of scientists have made breakthroughs in the field of memory study, successfully implanting false memories, changing the emotions attached to memories of trauma, and restoring the ability to form long-term memories in damaged brains in mice and other animals. One has already reached the human-experimentation phase. And though these new developments are years away from going to market, they point to a future where humanity will have control over memory—conquering dementia and PTSD, perhaps even improving on healthy memory function.
Imagine being able to scroll through your memories like your Instagram feed, to perfectly recall everything you've ever learned, to immediately access every section of your life history. You would be efficient, insightful, luminous. Would you be human?
That code, Berger said, looks one way when it comes into the hippocampus from the sensory systems (like hearing, touch, and sight), and it looks a different way when it flows out of the hippocampus for long-term storage. With this in mind, Berger created mathematical models that mimic this transformation, even without understanding why the transformation happens. "It's like trying to identify the rules for translating Russian into Chinese, when you don't know Russian or Chinese," Berger has said.In animal experiments, Berger has been able to re-create the processing of these memory codes in rats and monkeys through use of an implant that runs his algorithm, acting as a kind of prosthetic hippocampus (see infographic at bottom of this page). To test the device, Berger implanted it into rats and monkeys that had had their hippocampuses disabled. The rats were trained to pull a series of levers to receive a reward; the monkeys performed more complicated memory tasks using a computer screen. Though both sets of animals were unable to naturally form long-term memories, the rats, when later placed in front of the same set of levers, again pulled the levers in the correct sequence—as if they'd recorded the memory naturally. The monkeys performed similarly well, relying on memories that had been processed by the device.
"I look at the velocity of the development of artificial intelligence, and I look at the velocity of the development of human intelligence, and I don't like the difference," Bryan Johnson said.
Johnson arrived at a different conclusion. Although he knows the tech will necessarily start out as therapeutic remedies for people with cognitive deficits, he hopes it will eventually grow beyond that. Far beyond. "My objective with Kernel is to provide this to billions of people," he says. Ultimately, he hopes that devices like the memory prosthetic that Berger is developing will be available for anyone who would like to be mentally enhanced. Though his goal is a moonshot—the idea of bringing such a device to market even in ten years seems optimistic at best—his demeanor is anything but moony. Johnson expresses his plans and ideas with rigorously analytical precision. "There are already low-resolution forms of cognitive enhancement," he points out. "If somebody puts their child into private school over a poorly funded school system, that's a form of cognitive enhancement. A private tutor is a form of cognitive enhancement." To Johnson, improving one's mind by use of technology rather than education is a difference of degree and not of type.