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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Sleeping Fiction

Photo by Kay T. Holt

In science fiction, sleep is a pastime. For the sake of continuity, characters are put into suspended animation so the reader can travel with them across vast expanses with neither suffering catastrophic ennui. Sure, sleep facilitates other things, too – vivid dreamers communicate with aliens and sleep-deprived characters make every kind of mischief sooner or later – but SF is really big on sleeping beauties.

Which is a shame, when you think about it. Sleep itself is in many ways still a frontier. We have some interesting ideas about sleep and learning, problem-solving, fat, food, puberty, immunity, blood pressure, loneliness… Name anything to do with the body, and it appears to be affected by sleep in one way or many, yet SF largely neglects to explore sleep past its nearest and most familiar boundaries.

Returning to the idea of character continuity; even that tired old plot device has been only superficially explored. What if the brain activity while we sleep is the process by which we maintain our personal continuity from day to day? How might suspending that activity for the duration of long spaceflights disrupt our capacities or even our identities? Or, if sleep-state brain activity is somehow maintained during suspended animation, wouldn’t the brain develop physiological changes over time? If so, how would they present in terms of behavior?

There are an abundance of dimensions of sleep still open for speculation. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to navigate a few of them with my eyes closed. But what about the reader? What interesting treatments of sleep have you found in SF? And what other interesting biological phenomena would you like to see better explored in fiction?

Empty your memory trash can? (This action cannot be undone)

PKMzeta is shaping up to be a single, target-able protein in the brain responsible for reconsolidating memories. Discover ran a three part article on it and there was a recent article in Wired, too — the original scientific papers are behind subscription walls, unfortunately.

In brief, reconsolidation is a maintenance process for long-term memories. We think our memories are firm and unchanging, but plenty of studies have proven that they aren’t. They shift a little each time we remember them, each time we reconsolidate them, and over time those shifts add up. (And they’re often inaccurate to begin with, but that’s another issue.)

PKMzeta is a protien that hangs out in the synapses between neurons and maintains a particular ion channel so that the neuron is able to receive signals from the neighbors. Without PKMzeta, the number of those particular ion channels drops and the neuron becomes less sensitive to nearby activity.

Block the PKMzeta when a memory is undergoing reconsolidation and the memory will fade.We already have one drug (propranolol) that does this, and there are sure to be more.

There are tons of questions still to be answered, of course. And there are tons of possible uses and abuses of such a thing. This is such a gold mine of science fiction possibilities that I’m sure I don’t have to list them. But I would like to bring up one.

“This isn’t Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind-style mindwiping” the article in Wired says. That may be true, but it also does not address an excellent question that movie poses (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.) The question being: you can remove the memories associated with a bad relationship with a person, but what about the underlying attraction that drew you to that person in the first place? One of the implications I got from that movie was that the two of them were stuck in a cycle of attraction, falling apart and voluntary mind-wipes.

For “person,” above, substitute anything you like. Kittens. Drugs. Street racing. World domination… like I said, a gold mine of possibilities here.

Memory and Fear

As I write this, I have a Halloween soundtrack playing behind me. It does a great job of setting the mood. Every now and then, it will get to a screaming child sequence from a long ago movie. I know rationally what this is, yet it triggers something in me and I find myself anxious and creeped out just a bit.

For most of the month, I’ve been planning to write on memory and fear to celebrate Halloween with you. When I started the research, I was quite surprised on how deep this goes. I was considering where fears might be stored. Yet, I hadn’t given any thought to PTSD, depresssion, or how memory factors into conditioned responses. Read the rest of this entry »

Dreaming Robot Can’t Wake Up

ZaZa can't wake from dreams of being splashed.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Apparently not, according to researchers at the Interdisciplinary Technology Institute in Boston. “Most of ZaZa’s dreams are about getting splashed.” Whether that’s the result of oversight or foresight, ZaZa’s vulnerability to liquids has been a boon to the scientists at ITI from the beginning of this uncanny project.

As part of their research into the relationship between dreaming and memory formation, ZaZa was created to be a learning robot. Scientists expose her to new stimuli and information every day and then assess her recollection over time. According to one researcher, ZaZa came in contact with an uncovered cup of coffee during the first week of the study, and immediately afterward, her dreams became less like randomized input logs and more recognizably dream-like. “After the incident, we instructed her to avoid all moisture in the future. We expected to see the event reflected in her dreams but we’re still surprised by the extent of its impact.”

Because organic brains are still far more complex than even the most advanced computers, scientists at ITI had to overcome major hurdles while designing the project. In order to construct a useful model of a human mind, they had to give ZaZa several ‘brains.’ In addition to the central unit in her chest, she has a computer to regulate and monitor each of her six sensor-types, another to coordinate the senses and simulate short term memory and recall, and a ninth computer dedicated to communication and dreaming. One would expect a robot brain composed of so many computers to be cumbersome and awkward, but ZaZa is surprisingly small; about the size of a kindergartner. Because ITI’s dream research requires that ZaZa be able to move around and interact with scientists, they took advantage of existing, inexpensive broadband mobile technology rather than reinventing the wheel for the project. As a result, little ZaZa is completely wireless and has a remote brain.

Wifi is only one of the technological advances that researchers at ITI have incorporated into the design of their dream-bot.  To give ZaZa the ability to learn like a human, they applied developments in self-organizing computer networks, simulated cognition and artificial intelligence, and even language acquisition and physical creativity. “The ZaZa Project is really a collaborative effort between ITI and dozens of other institutions. The individual advances made in their labs are brought together in ours.”

Considerable effort went into ZaZa’s outward design, as well. In order to inspire more ‘life-like’ dreams, they’ve equipped her with the social skills necessary to recognize human emotions and respond appropriately. For day-to-day interactions between ZaZa and researchers to be as normal as possible, they’ve even given her human mannerisms and appearance. One scientist said, “When all her systems are functioning optimally, you could almost forget she isn’t someone’s little girl.”

Of course, any system as complex as ZaZa’s is bound to malfunction at times. Because most of her brains are located outside her body, she slips into standby mode whenever the local wifi signal drops and must be woken manually. If even one of her computers crashes, scientists must shut her down completely and repeat the day’s research from the beginning. Simple physical problems, like replacing worn sensors, can be dealt with more easily because ZaZa doesn’t technically feel pain. However, every time she gets wet – a month after the coffee incident, poor ventilation in another lab at ITI triggered the fire sprinklers – ZaZa’s body suffers catastrophic failure and must be rebuilt.

When everything goes according to plan, ZaZa is still only awake for eight hours a day, five days a week. “ZaZa can’t be left unattended while she’s awake, so she has to dream while we’re all home on nights and weekends,” explained the project’s lead scientist. That’s perfect for their research because it means that during periods without major malfunctions, they still acquire enough dream logs to make up for the time they spend rebuilding and repairing her systems.

Scientists are naturally reluctant to offer much speculation about the results of this study so early in the project, but many researchers are already planning future studies involving ZaZa and conceiving new robots based upon her design. One such project has already been green-lighted by ITI, but the only details scientists would divulge about it were that the next generation of ‘dream-bot’ will be adult-sized to accommodate internal, self-contained computer brains. Also, unlike ZaZa, who spends most hours lying under a tarp unable to wake from dreams about getting splashed, their next prototype will be able to swim if necessary, and may rest, but never sleep.