Proustian neuroscience

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2011

In defiance of the title, I’ll keep this brief. (Yeah, I know, I know; some days I even crack myself up.)

A bit of advice I’ve heard a lot with relation to creative writing – moreso with poetry than fiction, but far from exclusively so – is the deployment of “the telling detail”to create versimilitude. You know the way a writer drops one or two close detailed observations into a scene, and they somehow make it all the more real, easy to visualise? (Like the Mastercard sticker of the shard of glass that pins someone to the back wall of a shop, f’rinstance, which I read in a story a few days back and just can’t get out of my head.)

Well, it turns out that may be tapping into a way that our brains store interrelated information. Like the way sometimes you forget a major facet of some event you experienced – say, the important speech given by someone at a conference – but you can remember some irrelevant little detail, like the way their blouse clashed with their Powerpoint slides? There’s a neuroscientific mechanism for that. (Maybe.) [via BigThink]

In response to external stimuli, dendritic spines in the cerebral cortex undergo structural remodeling, getting larger in response to repeated activity within the brain. This remodeling is thought to underlie learning and memory.

The MIT researchers found that a memory of a seemingly irrelevant detail — the kind of detail that would normally be relegated to a short-term memory — may accompany a long-term memory if two synapses on a single dendritic arbor are stimulated within an hour and a half of each other.

“A synapse that received a weak stimulation, the kind that would normally accompany a short-term memory, will express a correlate of a long-term memory if two synapses on a single dendritic branch were involved in a similar time frame,” Govindarajan said.

This occurs because the weakly stimulated synapse can steal or hitchhike on a set of proteins synthesised at or near the strongly stimulated synapse. These proteins are necessary for the enlargement of a dendritic spine that allows the establishment of a long-term memory.

“Not all irrelevant information is recalled, because some of it did not stimulate the synapses of the dendritic branch that happens to contain the strongly stimulated synapse,” Israely said.

NEW FICTION: PLATFORM 17 by Stephen Gaskell

Paul Raven @ 01-11-2010

Memory has always been a popular theme in Futurismic‘s fiction selection; maybe that’s a sign of the times, as I seem to blog about neuroscience and memory a lot in recent months, or maybe it’s just one of the frontiers that science fiction will always be best equipped to explore.

Either which way, I’m super proud to have Stephen Gaskell return to the site with “Platform 17”. What would you do to cure your child’s nightmares? Would you go so far as to penetrate to their heart? And what might doing so make you become?


Platform 17

by Stephen Gaskell

Orsi stroked her son’s head. He slept fitfully, his hair sweaty and matted. From time to time, he moaned, made a low, frightened noise like a cornered animal. She’d rocked him to sleep an hour earlier, then carried him to his bed with numb arms.

“Oh, kicsi,” she whispered, straightening the rumpled blankets. She thought about singing a lullaby, but immediately felt silly at the idea. Csaba was ten, not two.

He jerked his neck back, eyelids twitching. His whole body shuddered and his arm came up to his head as though he were about to shield himself from a blow. “No, no,” he muttered, frantic. The arm across his face trembled, then lurched downwards as if it were being moved against his will. Then, as the previous night and the five before, he began screaming. Not a hearty shriek, but a terrible, hoarse, broken wail like fingernails raking down a blackboard.

“Csaba!” Orsi gripped his shoulders, shook him. “Csaba, wake up! It’s only a dream.”

His eyes blinked open, but he kept screaming. His face was pale, horrified.

“What did he do to you?” Orsi said, hugging her son too hard. “What did your father do to you?”

His screams faded, became whimpers. He didn’t answer. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: PLATFORM 17 by Stephen Gaskell”

We can forget it for you wholesale

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

Via Technovelgy comes news of progress in erasing memories using drugs, a mechanism independent of the way said memories actually form. Admittedly, the state of the art so far appears to be making fruit flies forget that certain smells coincided with a shock administered to one of their legs, but hey, you gotta start somewhere…

Fans of memory-erasure should check out Marissa Lingen’s subtle yet highly affecting Futurismic story “Erasing The Map” from back in February 2009. Her fictional erasure is surgical, not chemical, but the moral questions care nothing for the methods used…

Tobias Buckell story and interview at Lightspeed Magazine

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2010

Veteran readers of this ‘ere blawg may remember that, back when yours truly joined up as a blogger and started posting short starry-eyed blurts about nanotech*, the regular contributors included a man now much better known as the novelist he was working hard to become. That man is, of course, Tobias Buckell… and new-sf-zine-on-the-block Lightspeed has his short story “Manumission**” available for reading at no cost wahtsoever to you, my fiction-hungry friends.

There’s a short interview with Tobias as well, in which he talks about the horrifying implications of memory editing that underly the story (a theme that crops up in a more Mundane-SF context Marissa Lingen’s “Erasing The Map”, published right here around a year and a half ago), and how it connects to the universe in which his novels have been set. Smart guy, great writer; there’s no Futurismic column this week, so spend that half hour on our Tobias, why don’t you?

[ * – Yeah, I know, big change since then, AMIRITE? ]

[ ** – Almost certainly not named after the mid-90s Ibiza superclub. ]

We can misremember it for you wholesale: historically layered Londons, and the past as palimpsest

Paul Raven @ 28-05-2010

Via Bruce Sterling, one of the more obvious augmented reality applications, done elegantly: historical archive images overlaid onto the real (present/baseline?) world. The older I get, the more I become fascinated with history; if someone did up layers like this for the whole country, I’d probably never switch it off. [image ganked from TechVert; please contact for takedown if required]

London Museum archive photo augmented reality app

Give it a couple of years (or maybe less), we’ll be doing the same with archive video. Another few years, generative CGI that is practically indistinguishable from archive video. Alternate history as real-time immersive gaming experience… think of the 80-hours-a-week WoW player, and it’s easy to assume that some people will pretty much live in AR environments full time. A subsection of those people will make their entire living in that space, geographically contigious with baseline reality but offset (or derailed completely) from historical temporal flow. Whose laws will they obey? Who will they pay taxes to? What will their game goals be? Imagine a Victorian London ARG that’s something like The Sims – your goal is, basically, to survive your chosen socioeconomic mileue for as long as possible without dropping out… or dying in the attempt.

Related bonus link: MeFi points out an experiment into the mutability of memory as manipulated by doctored ‘historical’ images and media artefacts. Apparently not a very rigorous experiment, but nonetheless, the implication is that it’s alarmingly easy to convince us that a fabricated event actually occured. This is, hopefully, a temporary problem. It’s going to take us a little while to evolve the sort of high-sensitivity bullshit filters that an impossible-to-police internet demands, and ubiquitous AR will raise the bar another few notches; I suspect we’ll get there eventually. But unless technological progress hits a brick wall fairly soon, I suspect we’ll never fully catch up. This is a little like what evolutionary science calls an “arms race”, I think… though we’re now in an arms race with the cultural and technological output of our own species.

Thinking about it again, I guess we always have been… I’m sure I’m reinventing the wheel here (and if you can point me toward more thinking alonmg these lines, please pipe up in the comments), but the enormity of this revelatory idea has pretty much scuppered my chances of concentrating on anything else for the rest of the day.

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