The Last Word | Past Perfect

Of Mice & Memory

“The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner famously remarked. “It isn’t even past.” Now, thanks to a breakthrough experiment with lab mice conducted by scientists at the Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, not only is the past not past, it’s whatever we care to make it.

As recently announced in the journal Science and widely reported by the media, researchers at the center have managed to re-jigger neurons in the mice’s hippocampus, the part of the brain in which the mechanism of memory is located. As a result, the mice were made to remember being given an electric shock in a place different from where it was actually inflicted.

When it comes to mammals, whether mice or men, the basic function of memory is quite similar. In the words of one neuroscientist, at certain levels of mental activity, “the difference between a human and a mouse is quite small.” (Anyone who followed the conduct of certain candidates in New York City’s contests for mayor and comptroller will immediately apprehend the validity of this assertion.)

False memory, of course, is a familiar phenomenon. A common occurrence in criminal cases, it’s most often associated with aging. At one time or another, couples married for any length of time will recall in dramatically different ways experiences they’ve shared. Sometimes they even recall events that never happened at all...

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About the Author

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.