Spies exploring memory-extraction, says UCL neuroscientist (Wired UK)


Surveillance agencies may already be practically examining the possibility of using neuroscience to pluck memories from the minds of suspects and examine them for clues, it was revealed at WIRED Health 2015.

Unfortunately for them, the neuroscientist helping to lead the landmark studies on which those techniques could theoretically be based is not interested in helping.

“They have been in touch with me already,” Eleanor A. Maguire, professor of neuroscience at University College London and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, told WIRED editor David Rowan at the conference, when questioned if GCHQ or the United States NSA might one day explore such ideas. 

“I backed off, though.”

Maguire gave no specifics on who approached her, or specifically why. But you can see why GCHQ (for instance) might be keen; Maguire’s research has already shown that it is possible to identify which specific memory people remember — even how old that memory is — based on a high-resolution MRI scan of the hippocampus.

Michael Newington Gray
Michael Newington Gray

But that does not mean spies could identify memories without knowledge of what those memories already were — or that it’s reliable enough to use in court.

“We have to be very sensible about this,” Maguire told Rowan. “[In the UCL study] it was done complicitly with subjects. It’s still got a long way to go in terms of the flexibility of these sorts of approaches. I think we can all rest peacefully in our beds.”

The real-world use of this research, at least today, is in enabling new types of studies into the fundamentals of how the brain forms memories, and what medical research might be able to do to help in the case of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Memory is central to who we are and what we do,” Maguire said. “It is the basis of culture and we would not have society without our shared memories. That is why we fear memory loss so much — because we have so much to lose.”

Neuroscience has already taught us much about how the brain is structured, and some elements of how it functions. But there is still a massive gap in our knowledge, which Maguire describes succinctly as the “software”. She said: “My motivation is to try to do cognitive science research at a fundamental level which will tell us how memory works… and helpfully use this to create massive step changes. This is a huge challenge because there is a massive stumbling block — the how of memory. How does information about specific autobiographical memories come to be in the hippocampus? It’s the software if you like — we have a massive software gap.”

Part of the challenge has been to change the assumption that memory is handled separately in the brain to cognition. Macguire’s research has helped establish a new model in which the ability to imagine spatially coherent scenes are inextricably linked to all kinds of thinking, from dreaming to imagination, autobiographical memory and navigation.

To help make this case, Maguire points to studies on patients with amnesia who lose not only the ability to remember their past, but also to make imaginative leaps of any kind about their future. At WIRED Health Maguire quoted one patient as saying: “I feel like I’m listening to the radio instead of watching it on TV.” 

“These patients also say that they no longer dream,” Maguire said. They have no past, future, imagination or even the ability to visualise what might be around the corner. The implication is that memory is not separate to cognition — they are inextricably linked.

The next step, Maguire said, is a new mass study of memory and cognition which will help gather new data about how real people use their memory. It builds off a previous study into London taxi drivers before and after they studied for the famous Knowledge geographical exam. The new project, called ‘Memo’ (Multifaceted Examination of Memory and its Origins), will involve hundreds of volunteers and could be a foundational study into how memories are formed, retained and accessed.

(Just don’t tell GCHQ.)

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24 April 2015 | 5:21 pm – Source: wired.co.uk


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