There are bad memories that many of us would be happy to erase; one of the wonders of medical science is doing something pretty close, which is decoupling negative emotions from negative memories. You may remember a car crash or a nasty breakup, but thinking about those events won't bring up pain or sadness. And those are apparently just the first steps forward for modern brain-computer interfaces, which science is using in some pretty crazy ways.
The New York Times reports that they altered the memory of a mouse to turn neutral memories into negatives, making them believe they'd been received an electrical shock somewhere they actually hadn't. The negative reinforcement is actually a little creepy to think about, but the flip side is the ability to mellow negative memories into something less emotionally damaging. Science fiction has had a field day with both in the past, and now we're getting close to making those kinds of brain alterations possible.
One scientist working on the experiment, Steve Ramirez, sees the positive side. Quoted in the Times:
“The one thing that the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” gets wrong, is that they are erasing an entire memory,” said Mr. Ramirez of M.I.T. “I think we can do better, while keeping the image of Kate Winslet, we can get rid of the sad part of that memory.”
Sci-fi writers, no doubt, would say cleansing negative memories is essentially destroying what makes us human. But it's hard to argue that there are legitimate medical uses, like treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Key to modifying memories is developing new brain-computer interfaces, and here science is making some exciting advancements, too.
A project called Decoded Neurofeedback used an fMRI machine to send signals to the brain. Eventually, that project could lead to us learning, or being imprinted with, information as we sleep, picking up a new skill or a second language. We will all know kung fu.
Another project at Harvard University enabled human participants to waggle a rat's tale using a pair of brain interfaces, no surgery required.
The Times writes that another scientist, Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis, has come up with some wild brain-computer experiments that tie into the Internet. In one, he connected two mice located in North Carolina and Brazil, allowing them to coordinate when they pressed a lever. He did the same with monkeys, allowing them to solve a puzzle when they were each given half the solution. And another project at Harvard University enabled human participants to waggle a rat's tale using a pair of brain interfaces, no surgery required.
In other words, we're at the stage now where we can communicate without speaking, and move objects with thought. For now, it's only on a small scale. Rats can talk to each other over the Internet, but we're going to need better brain-computer interfaces to harvest our thoughts without invasive surgery. We can affect the movement of other living things, but we can't exactly make our cereal spoons float up into our mouths. But combine this research with the Internet of Things and, well, we'll be able to silently talk to and move just about whatever we want.