A scientist at M.I.T. has been working on a way to decipher our memories and encode them like data for a computer. The goal is to be able to restore memories in cases where Alzheimer’s disease or some other damage to the brain has caused neuron failure and memory loss.

Dr. Ed Boyden uses a protein extracted from algae that produces electricity when struck by light. By inserting the protein into brain neurons and then triggering them with light, he and his team are hoping to be able to map out brain pathways, learning more about how the brain functions and possibly even translating the neural paths of memories into binary code, which would allow them to be stored like other computer data. So far there have been promising results from testing with mice.

Obviously the storage and re-implantation of memories (or implantation of new ones) could have a lot more applications than just helping dementia victims, and there have been all kinds of science fiction stories covering that ground, including movies like Total Recall and Johnny Mnemonic. I suspect the reality, when it comes, won’t be nearly so cut and dried. After all, much of what we “remember” is edited and rewritten by our conscious minds, taking pieces of actual memory and combining them with experience and knowledge we’ve acquired along the way. The result can’t possibly be like the precise and well-organized data computers like to receive, and it certainly won’t “play back” like a piece of video. At best, a replay would be like a dream state, where we often jump from one scene or setting to another without any linking moments between. The continuity and context could easily be lost. So I suspect the closest anyone will come to returning a lost memory will be to take the retrievable highlights, and then string them together with manufactured filler in a way someone or some machine thinks will make sense. Kind of like one of those Hollywood movies “based on a true story”. Entertaining, maybe. But a preservation of a real past? Not hardly.