Dollhouse’s Absurd Sci-Fi Premise Actually Got One Thing Right

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve “recalled” a fake memory at some point.

Dollhouse art
Lais Borges/Inverse; Mutant Enemy
Reel Science

If you’ve ever wanted a fresh start in life, look no further than the late 2000s sci-fi series Dollhouse for what a true clean slate could be like. Released 15 years ago this February, Dollhouse was an underrated (and short-lived) two-season series that explored the consequences of wiping a person’s entire memory. In the show, a company employs “Actives” or human dolls to work for wealthy individuals. Before each new assignment, the dolls get their memories destroyed, allowing them to seamlessly turn from assassins one day to lovers the next.

While we don’t currently have the technology to Control-D human memory, we are far closer to that reality than you might think. Lawrence Patihis, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth who researches memory distortions, tells Inverse that it’s entirely possible to implant false memories into someone’s mind. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve “recalled” a fake memory at some point.

Everyday Memory Inception

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From Total Recall to Inception, science-fiction movies have put forth fictional interpretations of false memory implantation involving high-tech gadgetry. In Dollhouse, there’s an entire corporation devoted to the practice with multiple underground facilities and teams of sketchy scientists. But real-life examples are often far simpler: They occur through the power of manipulative suggestion.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus popularized the concept of false memories in the 1990s with her research showing how participants were led to believe that entire false events — like getting lost in a mall as a child — happened to them when presented with these fake details after the fact.

Another infamous example is the George Franklin case, wherein Franklin’s daughter shared false memories — brought about through hypnosis — in court about her father committing a murder. Franklin was later exonerated of the crime.

“It is important to note that not everyone is susceptible to these manipulations, and in most of Loftus’ famous experiments, the majority of participants do not, in fact, develop memories for events that did not happen to them,” Jesse Rissman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells Inverse.

Certain individuals are more susceptible, including people with schizophrenia, children, and the elderly. Recent research found that more than a fifth of participants reported false memories after being exposed to fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic. The participants who had false memories said they remembered hearing about or seeing the fake news described in the study — even though it never happened. Individuals with greater critical thinking skills or knowledge of Covid-19 were less likely to report false memories.

Even so, some experts argue no one is immune to the lure of false memories. The University of Portsmouth’s Patihis conducted research that identified false memories in individuals with “highly superior autobiographical memory.”

The Brain Science Behind False Memories

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So, what’s happening in the brain when false memories occur? Our brains use two mechanisms to recall memories: Consolidation and reconsolidation. Consolidation happens when our brains are recalling events that just happened to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. Reconsolidation happens when our brains are remembering events already stored in our long-term memories. When we do this, our minds become vulnerable to alteration, and that’s when false memories can take hold, says Rissman.

If someone is recalling a long-term memory, and an alternate account of that memory is presented to them, the mind can blend those accounts and insert new — false — details.

“There are some intriguing experimental techniques to exploit this reconsolidation process so as to update and change past memories, for instance by making them less emotionally laden or by altering specific details,” Rissman says.

Such experiments might sound downright nefarious, but there could be potential benefits to disrupting reconsolidation. Some research suggests people with PTSD could benefit from memory manipulation, which would dampen specific memories. On the flip side, individuals with Alzheimer’s could benefit from enhancing memories.

Can We Detect False Memories?

Research shows it’s hard to distinguish false memories from true memories in scans of the brain, also known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When you take an fMRI of the brain, the same neural networks activate regardless of whether you’re recalling a memory or imagining a future moment.

“The consensus seems to be that we cannot tell false memories from true memories,” Patihis says.

But over the past decade, neuroscientists have gotten closer to inducing and mapping false memories in the brain — albeit in rodent minds rather than human ones — using a method known as optogenetics. Scientists in a 2013 study successfully manipulated cells in mice’s hippocampus, which is a region of the brain critical for memory.

Using a surgically implanted device, researchers were able to activate a precise set of neurons at the right time so mice froze as if they had received an electrical shock to the foot, even though no such shock had been administered to the mice.

The researchers were “essentially laying the building blocks for a false memory,” according to Rissman.

We can’t yet safely apply optogenetics to induce false memories in humans, though Rissman says research is underway to use these same techniques to restore vision or hearing.

“It is also far from clear whether more complex memories could be implanted [in humans],” Rissman says.

In other words: No one is going to be turned into a human doll anytime soon. For now, we’ll have to amuse ourselves with sci-fi worlds like Dollhouse which toy with the consequences of an often-coveted clean slate.

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