Jon Hamm is a sexy holographic projection of an elderly woman’s late husband in the upcoming film Marjorie Prime. His hologram is equipped with artificial intelligence, which allows his widowed, increasingly forgetful wife Marjorie, played by 86-year-old Lois Smith, to keep the fading memory of her late husband alive. The fleetingness of memory is central to the film, as are the ways technology can be used to rescue it.
In its newest trailer, Geena Davis, who plays Marjorie’s daughter, sums up Marjorie’s great challenge in a line that’s both poignant and scientifically accurate: “When you remember something, you remember the last time you remembered it. So it’s always getting fuzzier, like a photocopy of a photocopy.”
Neuroscientists would agree that it’s a fair assessment of how memory works. In 2012, researchers at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine became to the first to discover that each time a memory is recalled, the brain network alters it in some way. Like a photocopy of a photocopy — or a game of telephone — what is remembered is not the original event, but the last memory of that event.
In a statement, study author and research assistant professor Donna Bridge, Ph.D, explained that this occurs because memories are highly influenced by mood and environmental settings. As you remember and re-remember memories under different circumstances, that memory will change over time.
“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” says Bridge. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”
People across all ages seem to experience this form of memory distortion, but older people, like Marjorie, are especially susceptible to memory loss. Scientists believe people become less adept at forming and retaining memories as early as age 45, but not everyone has the same memory loss process.
In an article published by Pennsylvania State University, cognitive neuroscientist Nancy Dennis, Ph.D., explained that some memories fade with age while others remain stable. The ability to remember specific events and impressions, which scientists call “item memories,” stays relatively stable over time. But “association memories,” which are events that are linked to the impressions they make on the person, fade. As people age,, the brain’s hippocampus — the over time. But associated with long-term memory retention — begins to shrink, and so do the memories stored there, and so do the memories stored there.
In 2013 scientists, from Columbia University found that age-related memory loss is also linked to brain events at the molecular level. In particular, the gene encoding the protein RbAp48, which regulates gene expression in a memory-linked part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, appears to become less active as humans aged. The scientists described the resulting drop in RbAp48 as a “molecular deficiency” that “truly contributes to age-related memory loss.”
The protagonist, Marjorie, is decidedly of the age where memories fade — so it’s both an understandable, and effective, form of memory-training for her to speak with a hologram of her late husband, despite the emotional costs that inevitably will come from that. In real life, that technology isn’t yet available, but visual cues are used to help patients with dementia while scientists recommend physical exercise as a known way to slow down memory loss from aging. That’s no Jon Hamm whispering about sweet memories to you, but it’s a start.
Marjorie Prime will be released to select theaters on August 18.