By all accounts Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is a talented neurosurgeon. But he seems to be surprisingly ill informed about modern memory science:
…on Monday, he told a factually wrong parable about the brain. Specifically, Carson said, the brain was incapable of forgetting and could be electrically stimulated into perfect recall — a statement that, even though made by one of the most famous former neurosurgeons alive, was far more fiction than science.
It came in an anecdote meant to motivate the federal employees, a bit Carson developed on the public speaking circuit. He described the brain’s surprising power as a way to show the audience that they were more capable than they believed.
Except his description did not hit the mark. “It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right here on the side of the head,” Carson said, circling his left temple with a finger, “and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate. And they would be able to recite back to you, verbatim, a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there. It doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it.”
Here’s the story in the Washington Post.
The insinuation that Carson could zap a patient into reciting, from cover to cover, a book read in 1957 was not true, experts said.
“Using electrodes placed in the human brain to implant memories or to recall forgotten memories is simply not possible at this time,” Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s neurotherapeutics division, told Gizmodo.
Dan Simons, a University of Illinois psychologist who studies attention and memory, told Wired that Carson’s claim was “utter nonsense.” Simons said it failed on nearly all counts: Humans cannot recall large swaths of text unless memorized for that purpose. Doctors cannot force patients to remember anything in crystal detail, even with deep brain stimulation. No human brain holds within it “a perfect and permanent record of our experiences,” the psychologist said.
In his famous book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes mentions his experiments on learning in mimosa plants. I found this fascinating and always wish he had provided more detail. Now a paper published in Nature points to evidence that plants are capable of associative learning. From the abstract:
Here we show that this type of learning occurs in the garden pea, Pisum sativum. By using a Y-maze task, we show that the position of a neutral cue, predicting the location of a light source, affected the direction of plant growth. This learned behaviour prevailed over innate phototropism. Notably, learning was successful only when it occurred during the subjective day, suggesting that behavioural performance is regulated by metabolic demands. Our results show that associative learning is an essential component of plant behaviour. We conclude that associative learning represents a universal adaptive mechanism shared by both animals and plants.
Methylene blue is a chemical that has been used an antidote for cyanide poisoning. There have been suggestions over the years that it may have an effect on memory. A paper titled “Multimodal Randomized Functional MR Imaging of the Effects of Methylene Blue in the Human Brain,” was recently published in the journal Radiology. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate a copy of the original paper, so I am forced to rely on this account in ScienceDaily:
“A single oral dose of methylene blue results in an increased MRI-based response in brain areas that control short-term memory and attention, according to a new study. Methylene blue was associated with a 7 percent increase in correct responses during memory retrieval.”
Several media outlets report that methylene blue was shown to improve short term memory. This is one of the reasons I need to see the original paper. The phrase “short term memory” is used differently by psychologists than the general public. Indeed, many psychologists have abandoned the phrase altogether and, instead, talk about working-memory. When non-academics talk about short term memory they mean things like forgetting a phone number or someone’s name. In fact, most of these are failures of attention or long term memory, not problems with short term memory. Thus, I worry that reporting on this research may be very misleading.
As a confirmed Indiaphile, I was fascinated by the possibility that Indian born Sri Srinivasan might be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. The New York Times ran this wonderful story about Sri Srinivasan’s home town, Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram:
“A bare-chested priest sat cross-legged in the temple of this farming village on a recent morning and recited all 1,008 names of Vishnu, the Hindu god, in the hope of soon receiving good news. A junior priest sprinkled the idol, known as Balaji, with shredded tulsi leaves and rose-water. The subject of their prayers was Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-born judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia who is rumored to be a top contender for to nominate to the Supreme Court.”
As we now know Vishnu did not come through. However, the article is still very much worth reading. Some of it is memory relevant:
“Neighbors say Judge Srinivasan’s grandfather, Padmanabhan Iyer, was neither rich nor powerful, but his ability to commit scriptures to memory made him an object of awe: He was capable of chanting mantras for two hours without as much as glancing at a text.”
But the very best part of the article is the correction section. As paper of record the Times did not fail to confess:
“An earlier version of this article misspelled in one instance the name of a village in India where the family of Sri Srinivasan once lived. The village is Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram, not Mela Thiruvenkanathapuram.”
I am traveling for the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here are some interesting links.