Monday, October 26, 2009

An experiment to remember...

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I remember the first time I rode my two-wheeler all by myself. I remember the feeling at the top of a dune in the Sahara. I remember the taste of a summer peach. I remember.

Memories shape who we are, the define us and create our identity. Who would we be without our recollections and reflections?

But a memory is only a biological phenomenon of the brain. That's it.

New memories are routed, interpreted and cross-referenced in a tiny region of the brain called the hippocampus. This structure is responsible for the associations of different thoughts, creating a memory - like between snakes and fear or chocolate and happiness.

But that is a massive oversimplification of the biology of a memory. It's almost impossible to conceptualize the complexity of the brain that remembers the vivid tastes, smells and sights of our life.

....unless you are a fly.

The memory and brain of the fruit fly has been studied for over 30 years and now, scientists were able to 'write' a memory directly into the brain of the fly. By simply shining a light into the brain of flies, at the centre known to be responsible for learning, the researchers were able to program a new association - or memory. This experiment reveals that our memories, no matter how integral to our self awareness, are only neurons making connections they hadn't done before.

An understanding of the biology of something so key to our humanity humbles me completely. We are still just a clump of cells. And our brain is just a massive network of neurons firing signals across the largest interchange in history.

--Torah Kachur

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