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Science Behind the Fiction: Could Captain Marvel's memory be read in real life?

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Mar 13, 2019

We're a few days in from the release of Marvel Studios' 21st film, Captain Marvel, and it's already a smash hit, having brought in nearly half a billion dollars at the time of this writing. The film answers a lot of questions like, what was the impetus for the Avengers Initiative and how did Fury lose his eye? It also contains, arguably, the best Stan Lee cameo to date.

**Spoiler Warning: There are many spoilers for Captain Marvel below.**

As origin stories go, this one breaks the mold in some ways. Instead of starting with Carol Danvers as an ordinary human before gaining her powers, Captain Marvel Tarantinos the story, throwing the audience right into the mix and delivering background information in a non-linear fashion. Which is appropriate, as there are some subtle nods to Pulp Fiction thrown in.

Even then, the first glimpses we get of Carol's past are delivered unconventionally, while she's suspended upside down from a Skrull machine.

Let's set the scene.

In the film's first act, three things happen in rapid succession. First, Carol (known as Vers to her Kree companions) is sent to converse with the Supreme Intelligence, an A.I. comprised of the collective minds of dead Kree. The intelligence manifests, Carol is told, as whoever is most important to you. For Carol, it appears as a woman she doesn't remember or recognize, played by Annette Bening. Her inability to recall the person standing before her doesn't matter, as the Supreme Intelligence knows her mind better than she knows herself.

Second, Carol is sent on a rescue mission. When she encounters the person she is meant to rescue, they turn out to be a Skrull in disguise, having somehow sussed out a code phrase that should have been irretrievably hidden in the subconscious.

Finally, Carol finds herself captured by Skrull combatants and hoisted up by the ankles while they use electric shocks and complex machinery to scour suppressed memories of her life on Earth from deep inside her mind.

There's a pattern here — whether intended by the filmmakers or not — about the sanctity of our inner minds and the ways our memories, thoughts, and emotions can be used against us.

Luckily, in the real world, our thoughts are happily tucked away in the lockbox of our minds, right?

Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

MAPPING OUR THOUGHTS

The human brain is, perhaps, the most complex computing machine in existence and, despite using them (to varying degrees) every moment of our lives, we've succeeded only partially in understanding how it works. The processes that result in conscious thought boggle… well, the mind. This probably has something to do with the brain being the thing trying to understand itself. It's something like trying to clearly see the self behind yourself inside an infinite regression of opposing mirrors. Nonetheless, we keep trying.

Simply thinking on the problem hasn't done the trick, despite thousands of years of effort, so scientists are turning to machines to do some of the heavy lifting. In 2011, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley sought to do just that. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the team, led by Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist, created a process for measuring visual input in the brain, processing it, and spitting out an image.

The experiment involved participants sitting in an imaging machine for hours at a time, watching movie trailers on YouTube over multiple sessions. So, just your typical Saturday afternoon. During the first session, the fMRI measured blood flow to the visual cortex and a sort of input map was created, correlating brain activity to image types. In the second session, the measured brain activity was put through an algorithm that utilized a library of existing video content to predict what the participant was seeing. The results, while imperfect, are impressive.

While Gallant's research succeeded in delivering vague shapes and occasionally recognizable features, it's better suited for illustrating abstract concepts than finite detail. That's where new research from the University of Toronto, Scarborough comes in. Using electroencephalography (EEG) data, Dan Nemrodov, a postdoctoral fellow, hooked up participants to EEG equipment to measure their brain activity in real time. "fMRI captures activity at the time scale of seconds, but EEG captures activity at the millisecond scale," Nemrodov said.

Study participants had their brain activity measured while viewing images of faces in order to capture the mental impression of what they were seeing. Then, using machine learning algorithms, that image was reconstructed. While images reconstructed from an individual participant were more accurate than those generated by random chance, indicating a real effect, the images generated by aggregate data from all participants produced the most compelling results.

In both the Berkeley and Scarborough tests, data was constructed from stimuli the participant was experiencing in real time, but both teams see possible applications in generating images from independent thought or from memory.

SHARING MEMORY

While the present is a shared experience, our memories are our own, at least for now. By putting study participants inside a virtual space, Eleanor Maquire, a neuroscientist at the University College London was able to detect and measure spatial memories as they were being created. Again, using fMRI, Maquire was able to isolate brain activity responsible for creating new memories.

A study published in Nature and carried out at Vanderbilt University showed that fMRI data was able to distinguish which of two images a participant was holding in their mind, even after the image was no longer being seen by the participant. This means they were able to measure, to some degree, a memory of an image the participant had previously seen.

In all these instances, the study participants were actively cooperating with researchers, holding images in their minds. Locating and discerning memories being actively withheld or unintentionally suppressed is, likely, another matter entirely.

There is, at present, no reason whatsoever for you to fear your innermost thoughts being decoded without your consent, but if this research is any indication, that day may be coming. And there are even more frightening things happening in the realm of memory.

Scientists have discovered how to implant false memories inside the mind. In mice, anyway. And the memory they chose is one of fear because the world is a hellscape.

At MIT, Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu crafted an experiment wherein they were able to implant an artificial memory of electric shock in the mind of a laboratory mouse. In case this story isn't ticking enough science fiction boxes for you, it also involves the injection of green glowing chemicals, brain implants, and lasers.

The chemical cocktail was used to identify what parts of the brain were responsible for memory encoding. The implants served as a conduit for laser stimulation. The mouse was then placed in a box wherein nothing untoward happened.

Later it was placed in another box — colored differently so the mouse could differentiate — and shocked. This encoded a negative memory associated with the second box. Later still, the mouse was placed in the safe box a second time.

Ramirez and Liu found that they could activate a memory of the electric shock by shining laser light on a specific region of the brain, tricking the mouse into experiencing a pain response that didn't happen.

The mouse then behaved as though it had been shocked, even though it hadn't.

The experiment, while horrifying, teaches us something about how the brain encodes and retrieves memory. It also teaches us how those processes can be manipulated.

According to Ramirez, a similar setup could be used to manipulate the memory of humans, though his intentions are less nefarious. He believes we could use this process to help individuals suffering from PTSD, depression, or other mental ailments.

Let's just hope nobody tells the Skrull, or the Kree, what we've discovered. And if they do, let's hope Carol Danvers is there to whip them into shape.

Captain Marvel is in theaters now.


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