Memory is the glue that binds our mental lives. Without it, we’d be prisoners of the present, unable to use the lessons of the past to change our future. From our first kiss to where we put our keys, memory represents who we are and how we learn and navigate the world. But how does it work? Neuroscientists using cutting-edge techniques are exploring the precise molecular mechanisms of memory. By studying a range of individuals ranging—from an 11-year-old whiz-kid who remembers every detail of his life to a woman who had memories implanted—scientists have uncovered a provocative idea. For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays intact. But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories. The question is—are we ready?
A new generation of technology is revolutionizing neuroscience, allowing a closer study of the brain than had ever seemed possible. The techniques are hybrids of optics, genetics, and synthetic biology with the ability to manipulate brain activity, often in real time. Through direct stimulation of neural connections, some of these techniques hold the promise for the treatment of diseases like depression or schizophrenia.