November 13, 2019
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The Military Discovered A Way To Boost Soldiers’ Memories, And We Tried It | Future You | NPR

Aaron Jones: Alright ready? Elise Hu: So just to review, if
I get it it’ll turn green, and then if I miss a human subject
— a human target — then it grunts. Jones: Yep. [grunt] [camera shutter] [camera shutter] [grunt] Hu: What? Jones: You have to remember to press the trigger. Hu: So much grunting. I can’t — Sorry. We are exploring the future of the human body and what humans
will be capable of in 2050. In this episode, memory boosting. How will super memory work? What will it mean when we can learn faster and remember better simply by zapping our brains a little bit? And what if someone can overwrite
your memory and manipulate what’s real? Let’s find out in this episode of Future You,
with me, Elise Hu. It is nighttime and we are in the Department of
Psychology at the University of New Mexico and I’m gonna spend the night here,
in this self-enclosed space, for two nights. One night without stimulation to
my brain and then the second night with electrodes connected to my brain. And the
reason why is because we’re gonna see if my memory can be improved while I’m
sleeping by zapping it. Vince Clark heads the Psychology Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico. Over the past few years he and his team have
tested all sorts of ways to enhance our brains ability to learn and remember. In a multi-year study, funded by the U.S. military’s research arm DARPA, they made this stunning discovery, if your brain gets zapped during a
certain stage of sleep it boosts your memory of the day before.
How well does this work? The researchers are letting me give it a try. Hu: Since this was
originally designed for the military the mental task is a VR game involving
shooting photos of human targets that appear in this desert scene. Jones: Ok, ready? Hu: Ok. Jones: Ok, here we go. Hu: So I’m looking for humans to move to take a photo of. Oh, oh, oh, wait what? Oh my gosh. Jones: Remember to move your head. Hu: Oh he grunted. At first, this is a struggle, but
eventually I get the hang of it. Training complete. Time to go to bed. Okay I’ve brushed my teeth. The only way that I can even access the outside
world is through this walkie-talkie. Otherwise I’m about to go to bed. So good night for night one.
Good night for control night. I get tested on my memory tomorrow. Bye. When you close your eyes at night and drift off to sleep, your brain begins its work on memory consolidation through four stages of sleep. Slow-wave sleep — or deep sleep — helps your brain encode long-term memories. While you’re sleeping, your
brain reviews what happened during the day and it stores information that you received. The super slow oscillations in your
brainwaves coordinate all this. Researchers found if they hook up your brain,
record the slow waves, use some advanced math to extract the data, then program a system to stimulate
your brain during slow-wave sleep, the process of storing your
memories is noticeably better. Research subjects who got stimulated at night have better recall of what they learned the night before. It’s about seven o’clock. They just woke me up with a walkie-talkie. So after the first night, I’m tested on this task to
get a base of what my memory is like. This will get compared to my stimulated
brain tomorrow. This is gonna be really quiet without the grunts. [camera shutter] To pass the time before night two,
we took in a little Albuquerque. The sunsets makes for memories worth boosting. Then back in my PJs.
This time, the researchers attach electrodes to my head so they
can read my brain signals while I sleep. Here’s my tail. One more time on the VR game before
an overnight memory stimulation. The researchers have to keep the
brain bonnet nice and fitted for the night so it can correctly read when I’m in deep sleep. Sleeping in a lab with a bunch
of wires attached to my head is rough, but once I fell into that slow-wave sleep they stimulated my
brain cells with something called tACS — transcranial alternating-current stimulation. The technique figures out my brain’s
frequency for memory encoding, and then feeds that same current back
into my brain to enhance my memories. Videographer: Are you in bed? Hu: Yeah. Videographer: Ok, I’m coming in. Hu: Good morning. Bye bonnet. This is the key VR test.
After brain stimulation, will my performance improve? Will my
brain have learned something, either explicitly or subconsciously, to make me
better at recognizing targets? Jones: So let me orient you to the graphs first. So the figure on the left is your
performance from your first day. Hu: Before we find out, let’s put our
memory expert and neuroscientist, Vince Clark, through our scenarios for how
this plays out in the year 2050. What is going to be superhuman about us if we can accelerate our learning and our memories in this way? Vince Clark: There will be technologies that
will allow you to learn things better, store them better, recall them better
later, things like that. They already exist today. It’s just a matter
of making it even more effective and easier to use and inexpensive. Once you encode memory it’s really hard to forget. And that’s probably the reason why we’re
able to do it because your brain is actually designed not to encode a memory
until you’re really sure it’s true. And what we’re doing is by boosting that
process a little bit we kind of reduce the threshold that you need in order to
be able to encode the memory. Hu: Yeah let’s talk a little bit about that.
What are super-villain uses of this? So, you know, Lex Luther gets this.
How is he gonna use this? Clark: So if he can manipulate
how people dream at night, or how people come up with their stories and consolidate their memories — Hu: Will we have memory
overwriting capabilities in the future? Clark: People are working on that too. It’s possible that it could be misused
and you could force someone to have a memory that wasn’t
really true somehow. Although it would take a lot more work than —
what we’re doing now is just enhancing a natural process. We’re not really
manipulating details about what you learned at all. But as we get better that might be possible. So memory manipulation, it sounds super scary if our heads can be messed with
externally while we’re sleeping. What do you imagine — so if this exists,
how do you imagine society will respond? Have you thought this through? Clark: So I see different patterns of responses. My feeling is we’re already doing it. Commercials are designed to change our feelings and our perspective about
products or about things that we could spend money on. And they’re very good at
that. They can — a good commercial can change our culture. So we’ve been
dealing with this for a long time. Hu: Well, what if a government wants to do that to promote nationalistic ideas or something though. Right? Clark: Right. Using medication too — I mean
experiments with different kinds of medication. How do you make people placid?
Things like that. Governments have looked at this for a long time. Hu: What do you expect, Dr. Clark, to be super
likely given this technology? Clark: I think we’ll get better at being able to enhance people’s ability to learn. Also
things like pay attention of doing sports and medical treatments like
reducing pain. We already have ways using electricity and magnetism to do that. Hu: Alright. A very hopeful take.
Thank you so much. How did I do? This surprises me, but
somehow my performance improved. I couldn’t explain how I came to hit the
targets faster, but I did. I’m not a true scientific subject though.
I’m just trying something that years of double-blind scientific research with
hundreds of subjects bore out. What does this prove? Jones: That we can use transcranial stimulation
during the night to improve other kinds of memory not just like, kind of veridical
declarative sorts of memory. Hu: What the research found is stimulation
improves memory generalization. My brain somehow did recognize
a pattern that the threats appeared in and learned it with the help of tiny zaps to my head. Even if I couldn’t explain the pattern
out loud, the learning happened. Pretty cool. Right? Ok. Checking out.
Checking out of the sleep lab. Oh. This way. Bye. Bye. So the possibilities for this
— for learning new skills or just remembering better — are pretty huge. And get this,
researchers are already finding evidence that they don’t have to boost
your memory while you’re asleep. This is already working in some
studies for those who are awake. How about that for the future you? We invite you to watch this whole series. You can watch it on NPR’s
channel on YouTube or at Ok. Bye.

Tony wyaad