Review by Justin Goodman
Three years ago, Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu gave a TED Talk titled “A mouse. A laser. A manipulated memory.” Of course, false memories were known about well before. They were, by then, heavily researched and discussed in relation to the justice system by Elizabeth Loftus. But the experiment the talk was based off was a first in memory science, revealing the ability to biologically manipulate memory. In the newest NOVA special, the structure of their experiment itself is explained. While the Ramirez & Liu (who passed away early last year) Talk doesn’t make an appearance in Memory Hackers, those who watched TED Talks in their heyday may recall it as they watch what the historical understanding of memory has been, and what the future of memory will be.
Unlike last week’s Creatures of Light, the obsession with the power of the human mind makes sense now. The degree they indulge in it, however, is still awkwardly inappropriate. Bookending the special are the random people and some of the scientists who make appearances within it (Eric Kandel, Steve Ramirez, Nico Dosenbach) being asked to recall their first memory in front of a white background. As they smile—or cry, as is the case at one point, although they skim over this—there are awkward little cuts to, generally, light filtered through an object. A pair of hands, trees, clouds. Other than leaving the impression that NOVA possibly hired Terrence Malick to direct the cameras, it also highlights the heavy-handed attempt to show a science without repercussions.
So, meet Jake Hausler and his smiling parents. Jake is an HSAM. Having this Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, Jake can seemingly remember everything in detail. James McGaugh, who pioneered the study of these special individuals, also provides one of the rare moments of insight into our relationship to memory in Memory Hackers, reminding us that memory is not intelligence. “They are not superior in other forms of learning,” he says; or, as one of his study participants says, “yeah, definitely not Rain Man.” How many people pick up on this particular subtlety, who knows, as it’s bogged down with references to the 1978-82 Taxi sitcom star, Marilu Henner, who was one of McGaugh’s HSAM patients. I’m not sure, at this point, if, having been born in 1992, I’m the audience for this particular special.
Regardless of my cynicism, the special does reaffirm the skepticisms science holds as natural and essential. The adventure of our knowledge from unchanging essences to ephemera—consolidation as a library to re-consolidation as (inexactly) a computer—continually works to remind that neither science nor our memories are picture-perfect. If only one could forget how ugly their presentation of this fact is. Perhaps we can, though.
Instead of a strictly historical analysis, the special gives us one of the most interesting applications of our knowledge in Merel Kindt, who works to remove what the voiceover calls “spider phobia” (and everyone else calls arachnophobia). Because a memory is not like library book with a permanent shape, but is more a computer file reshaped in recall, Kindt can take advantage of the body’s vulnerability and erase the fear memory during this process. For those who experience irrational fears towards everyday things—public speaking being the most common—this is incredible news. For those who house rational fears about the viability of witness testimony, such as Elizabeth Loftus, which sends roughly 10,000 innocent people to jail for serious crimes a year, this is an edged good.
Jorge Luis Borges predicted HSAMs. In 1944, the Argentinean author wrote a story titled “Funes the Memorious” about one. The oddly named Funes is bed-ridden, miserable, and utterly voiceless as Borges’ narrator is writing a kind of in memoriam to the dead, curious figure. Perhaps it is too much to say, as Borges does, that Funes “was not capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In [his] overly replete world…there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.” Yet, it’s not farfetched to recognize the limitations of being forget-less. As the 12-year old without any serious suffering says, “you remember every bad thing that’s happened to you.” Jake Hausler, of course, will experience suffering at one time or another. To NOVA’s credit, they close out Memory Hackers with the renowned Andre Fenton emphasizing how “forgetting is probably one of the most important thing that brains can do.” This viewer urges you to remember our perpetual “probably.”