On Fringe

The Malleability of Memory

By Garth Sundem

While Fringe is shot through with the paranormal, its bread and butter is the leading edge of the very normal science of memory–how do we make it, store it, and retrieve it? Walter can’t remember much of anything, Olivia can’t remember her childhood but remembers everything else, and Peter forgets little things like the fact he came from a different universe. And pushing memories around like pucks on a shuffleboard strip drives many of the show’s weekly plots–characters attempt to regain memories, steal them, repress them, and replace them, usually in rather suspenseful, medically explicit, and action-packed ways. While the specifics of these ways step slightly over the line from science to fiction, the show’s theoretical take on what’s possible in the weird and wild world of memory is spot on.

Throughout the seasons and episodes of Fringe, it’s as if creators and writers Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, and company read psychology journals over their morning coffee and then wondered what if . . . ? What if memory B cells held experiences other than pathogens? What if memories could be physically removed from one mind and inserted into others? What if mind-expansion drugs could make someone eidetic or psychic? Really, that’s how the best sci-fi gets born: What if mosquitoes encased in amber held dinosaur DNA (Jurassic Park)? What if you’d stepped on a prehistoric butterfly (“A Sound of Thunder”)? What would life look like on a planet almost completely devoid of water (Dune) or a planet completely covered by water (Waterworld . . . okay, that one sucked, but you get the point)?

So if Fringe’s what-ifs sprout from the truth like somewhat fanciful flowers, the first step in distinguishing memory fact from memory fiction is to dig through the soil: what is memory? What are its limits and loopholes?

It’s nice to imagine memory as a slightly fuzzier version of Olivia’s ability to instantly imprint things like the ID number on a cabbie’s Show Me card–that our memories are the lingering impressions of things that actually happened, and that while a memory might omit details, everything that’s included was at one time real. It happened. And our brain simply grabs whatever it can of these experiences and files memories in discreet little drawers somewhere in the folds of our grey matter until they’re needed at some later date.

It’s a nice theory, but as we see in Fringe (and in real life), it’s completely, patently, bodaciously wrong.

Memory is malleable. How you get it, how you store it, and how you retrieve it can all be punk’d, sometimes in ways eerily similar to techniques in Fringe that you hoped were fanciful, and sometimes in ways so simple that you could do it tomorrow with your unsuspecting work buddies.

First, let’s break it down old school and look at how memories are formed.

Your senses collect new experiences and filter them toward the hippocampus, which is a nifty little processing center that accepts the delivery of experiences and bundles them for storage. It’s very easy: experiences come in, and the hippocampus packages them and spits them back out–end of story. Nearly all of our memories are created this way.

But science is just now exploring a potential work-around, as seen in the case of British musician Clive Wearing. In 1985, Wearing contracted a virus that ate his hippocampus (very much like the flesh-dissolving agent that munched Olivia’s honey in season one). Gone. Nixed. Nada. Completely pruned from the brain. And thus pruned, Wearing completely lost the ability to code new memories. Interestingly, largely unimpaired were his working memory (allowing him to manipulate the stored information needed to read and socialize), his short-term memory (allowing him to retain facts for short periods of time), and his long-term memory (allowing him to recall events prior to his surgery). He continued to perform normally on IQ tests. Only, Wearing stayed trapped in 1985, where he went second-by-second about his day but where things inexplicably changed minute-by-minute–a door was open instead of closed; his wife, Deborah, was there, and then gone; things popped into and out of existence. But, almost cruelly, Wearing retained the ability to grow bits of implicit memory–somewhere in his unconscious he was able to hold and retain the impression that something was very wrong with him. And while he couldn’t consciously remember the names of prime ministers, he might blurt out, “John Major Vehicle!” when looking at a car with license plate JMV (Major was prime minister in the 1990s).

There may soon be hope for patients like Wearing and others unable to code new memories. Because the hippocampus is so much like an old-school telephone routing board–a little spitting of electricity in, and a corresponding little spitting of electricity out–researchers at USC were able to program these ins and outs onto a computer chip, creating an artificial hippocampus, capable of taking the place of a damaged hippocampus as surely as a hook replaces a hand. This neuroprosthetic is making its way toward humans.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It was what Newton did to Walter in the episode “Grey Matters” (2-10). Long ago, William Bell removed three pieces of Walter’s hippocampus (the science of which is on shaky footing, see below)–ones that stored the memory of how to open the door to the other side. Later, Newton reclaimed these pieces (surgically!) from their hosts and tried to plug them back into Walter’s brain, which was the only tool that could interpret them. That was, if they were reconnected correctly. Newton hooked Walter to a machine and showed Walter pictures of memories–most powerfully a coffin that we assume held the young, real-world Peter–and as Walter pulled these memories through the mechanics of his brain, the machine mapped the pathways this information took. What inputs led to what outputs in Walter’s hippocampus? If Newton could determine how memories are routed, he could then align the removed tissue in a way that allowed it to reconnect to Walter’s brain. (This is a perfect example of Fringe being conceptually spot on, but a bit fiction-y in the specifics: to map Walter’s hippocampus they should’ve had him code new memories, rather than recall old ones–but that would’ve nixed a valuable opportunity to fill in tasty tidbits of Walter’s backstory.)

So senses collect, the hippocampus processes, and then memories are offloaded to dusty storage closets distributed throughout the brain. (Thus, as above, the description in “Grey Matters” of Paris removing these three sections of memory from Walter’s hippocampus was a bit off.) And once memories are bundled and stored, the hippocampus is off the hook. You could grind it into hippo-pat© and it wouldn’t affect the tiny bundles of long-term memory that have already passed safely through. This is why Clive Wearing, with his hippocampus dissolved, kept his long-term memories but lost the ability to code new ones.

But notice that nowhere in this process of memory acquisition is the information hitting the hippocampus required to be real experiences–this allows us to learn word-of-mouth from others’ experiences as well as our own. Still, this is a long way from some of the memory tricks we see in Fringe. Is it conceivable to surgically implant Walter’s memories into the three extras who donated fourteen years of their lives to carrying Walter’s recollections of how to open a door?

Surgically, no. But why would you use a knife when it’s so very, very easy to create false memories without all that messy slicing and dicing?

The go-to researcher on false memories is Elizabeth Loftus, who’s been wiring foreign material into subjects’ memory webs since the 1970s. In the first of a series of famous experiments, Loftus had parents implant into their children the false memory of being lost in a shopping mall. The parent started with something like, “Remember the time you were lost in the mall?” And at first, the kids tended to deny the false memory–no, of course they had no recollection of this thing that never happened. But as parents provided more false details–“Don’t you remember, we agreed to meet at the tug boat?”–kids started to “remember” on their own, adding their own details to this false memory.

This experiment elicited a deluge of skepticism. Couldn’t it be possible that, rather than actually adopting a false memory, kids were simply being agreeable, playing along with a parent who so obviously wanted them to remember being lost in the mall (for whatever unfathomable parental reason)?

To counter the skeptics, Loftus designed a new study with a couple of rather nifty tweaks on the procedure. First, she used a questionnaire to gather all sorts of information about college-aged subjects’ pasts, specifically about foods they liked and disliked. Then she told subjects that the research team had fed their information into a supercomputer that knew, based on this information, what happened to the subjects as children. The “computer” presented subjects with a list that included many of the subjects’ real experiences, and within these was intermixed one false experience–in the case of these studies, suggesting the false memory of getting sick from dill pickles, hardboiled eggs, or another food.

And then Loftus served them lunch.

Without prompting, subjects generally avoided the foods that supposedly made them sick as kids but ate as normal everything else on the plate. In other words, they weren’t simply paying lip service to a memory they didn’t really have in order to please parents or scientists, but somehow this false memory of childhood food illness had infiltrated their consciousness to the point that it affected their present actions.

It’s as if a story told as truth can trick the hippocampus into bundling it in the same way the organ would bundle a real experience.

But in terms of false memory, the hippocampus is just the start. It works in a kind of Laurel and Hardy duo with the amygdala, with the hippocampus being the straight man who pretty much repeats what it (thinks it) sees and the amygdala providing the color. After the hippocampus straps a memory into a nice little bundle, the amygdala gets to attach an emotional tag–and these tags are hugely subjective, based not on events themselves but on how you interpret them.

These emotional keywords have obvious evolutionary purpose: fear makes you wary. Remember the last time you nearly fell off a cliff, or crashed your car, or petted a cobra? That wasn’t such a good idea, was it? You now know to avoid these things because of the amygdala’s pairing of memory with negative emotion.

Was the roller-coaster ride exciting, or scary? Was the dip in the pool cold, or invigorating? Then when we encounter a similar situation–another roller coaster, or another pool–we run a quick keyword search of our memory and check the emotional tag to help us respond to and interpret the new event. Whether you go on the roller coaster or jump in the pool depends on how you tagged these experiences last time.

This gets more interesting when you consider that we all might use different keywords to tag the same event. These keyword tags become part of our reality, and thus perhaps on a more metaphorical scale than Fringe we create differing “realities,” affecting not just our feelings but our actual recollections of the facts of events themselves.

Elizabeth Loftus (and John Palmer) showed this by forcing their own keyword tags onto subjects’ memories. They had subjects watch a video of a car crash and then asked them to estimate the cars’ speeds. But the sneaky experimenters phrased the question five slightly different ways:

  1. About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  2. About how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?
  3. About how fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?
  4. About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?
  5. About how fast were the cars going when they contacted with each other?

And so they tagged subjects’ memories with the keywords hit, smashed, collided, bumped, and contacted. Subjects’ speed estimates when tagged with “smash” averaged nine miles per hour faster than their estimates when tagged with “contact.”

Even spookier, though, is that this tagging didn’t just affect peoples’ speed estimates; it seemed to change their memories of the event itself. A week later when Loftus and Palmer asked subjects if the crash had produced broken glass, those whose memories were tagged with “smashed” said yes, while those whose memories had been tagged with “contacted” said no. For, of course, a smash breaks glass while a contact doesn’t.

So specific memories–maybe of a girl in a red dress or a preoccupation with the number twenty-eight–can be inserted in two ways: a false memory via the hippocampus or a false interpretation via the amygdala.

And now we have something safely stored. Whatever it is–real or fake, explicit or implicit, tagged with positive or negative emotion–the trick becomes holding on to it.

According to UCLA memory specialist Robert Bjork, we don’t forget anything–we all have Olivia’s eidetic memory. His work shows that whatever we experience, we process and store. You say you can’t remember your childhood best friend’s telephone number? Bjork has shown that if you’re reminded of this number, you’ll learn it much more quickly and accurately than if you were learning a fresh ten-digit number, meaning that while it may be difficult to retrieve, the memory lives in there somewhere.

So why, then, if all experiences are stored and never fully forgotten, can’t you remember where you put your damn car keys in the morning? Bjork calls this a problem not of storage but of retrieval. Is the solution to the problem of the missing keys as simple as Newton’s method of slicing open the back of your head with a surgical laser, removing the pulsing chunk of brain that holds this memory, and setting it next to your coffee cup on the kitchen table?

Not so much.

The biggest problem with surgical retrieval is that after the hippocampus, memory doesn’t stay bundled–instead of a discreet little package filed in a brain drawer that could be surgically opened and pilfered, one memory seems formed from a little bit of this and a little bit of that, stored willy-nilly throughout the brain.

And so the process of recalling a memory is like rolling a snowball–a trigger like the smell of cotton candy, or the sound of circus music, or the sight of a fun-house mirror provides the first ball, which then rolls through various parts of your brain picking up the additional elements it needs to form the full memory of the time you visited the state fair as a young child. How can you prune a memory if it doesn’t live in one, pruneable place?

But while this means that surgical removal of memories is likely to stay fiction, drugging away the ability to retrieve a memory is quickly becoming science.

When a trigger hits your brain, a molecule called PKMzeta chooses the paths this little snowball takes, allowing the nascent memory to gather all the relevant bits of info. The more frequently you remember something, the more you reinforce these PKMzeta pathways, making the memory easier to access next time. Without PKMzeta, you can roll a memory snowball and it won’t pick up anything.

Now imagine being able to block this PKMzeta exactly when you want. This is what the chemical ZIP does. After teaching rats that certain places in the floor of their cage held electric shocks, researchers injected the rats’ brains with ZIP and rats “forgot” their training–in fact, this forgetting was blocked recall, as ZIP impeded PKMzeta from doing its snowball work. Another injection of ZIP blocked rats’ recall of a sour taste (perhaps another injection would help the rats forget why they’re pissed off at the researchers). Soon when you sit down on a barstool, ZIP or chemicals like it could stop the memory of smoking–helping you forget to light up. Or it could (potentially) be made to stop the retrieval of certain memories, for example a soldier’s memory of battle trauma.

On the side of aiding rather than blocking retrieval, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to biologically “re-grow” memories, like Walter in “Reciprocity” (3-11), anytime soon. But Walter and Olivia both depend on another strategy that you could use tomorrow morning to help you find your keys: Olivia’s visit to Jacksonville could help her remember how to cross between worlds, or Walter could jump-start his memory with music, foods, etc.

Triggers as memory aides are firmly within the realm of fact. Remember how a memory starts: a trigger rolls the first small snowball through the brain–they “spark” your memory. And these triggers needn’t be explicit–rather than re-creating your walk in the door after work last night, the simple sound of a bell could remind you of your keys’ jingle as they landed on the back of the couch (bingo!). These subliminal triggers are so strong that researchers have shown that watching someone sneeze can make you overestimate your chance of dying in a car crash–the sneeze is a trigger that tumbles through your mind and brings to the forefront the idea of your mortality. Or holding a warm drink makes you like people more than if you were holding a cold drink–this warmth triggers feelings and memories of comfort and other general goodness, which you then apply to your companion. Or seeing the color orange during the Halloween season triggers purchasing unrelated orange products. Similarly, the place you learned something becomes bundled with the memory–if you study in a dorm room, you would do best if tested in the same dorm room. And if you learned how to cross from one world to the next in Jacksonville, you’re most likely to remember it in the same place.

But we still haven’t answered our earlier question: With unlimited storage and triggered recall, why can’t we recall everything? Why don’t we all have Olivia’s eidetic memory? Let’s check in one final time with Dr. Bjork, who says that our understanding of memory and forgetting as sworn enemies is misleading. Can you remember your zip code? Sure you can. But imagine if you held equally in your brain all the zip codes of all the places you’ve ever lived. When you’re asked to provide the current code, you’d have to sift through all the possibilities before returning the one you want. Instead, our brain prioritizes memories–and the most distant ones, those with the least priority, we count as so meaningless and irrelevant to our current and future choices that we allow them to become inaccessible. At least for now.

Did Olivia really forget her childhood spent as a test subject for Walter and William Bell? No. It’s there–it’s just buried. Did she really forget herself when she was overwritten with the memories of Fauxlivia? Hmmm, now there’s an interesting question.

Does it seem as if nearly every Fringe episode is enriched by a close-up of a syringe puncturing human flesh? And does any episode use the technique to more disturbing effect than “Olivia” (3-1), in which our good heroine became a human pincushion to Walternate and his minions? In that episode, Olivia had to fend off not only the drugs designed to overwrite her, but the attempts of an otherworld psychologist to convince Olivia that the self she brought into the room was not her true self. This was brainwashing, and its portrayal in Fringe mirrors its use by cults, governments, and armies through history.

First, let’s take a look at the drugs.

It’s a nifty idea to inject Olivia with B-lymphocytes, because these cells do, in fact, have a sort of rudimentary memory. B-lymphocytes are the immune system enforcers that both emit antibodies in the presence of a pathogen and then remember these pathogens’ signature, allowing them to quickly emit these same antibodies if the pathogen ever shows up again. They’re why you only get chicken pox once, or why today you don’t get chicken pox at all–after seeing killed virus in a vaccine, B-lymphocytes become what are called “memory B” cells. Thus forever transformed, they’re primed for the kill, carrying the memory of the pathogen. What if more than pathogens created memory B cells? What if memory B cells carried actual memories? Then, theoretically, if you removed these memory B cells from one person and injected them into another–with the help of mystery white and blue fluids–you just might transfer memories, mightn’t you?

But even without the drugs, the combination of confinement and psychological attack to which Olivia was subjected can do the brainwashing trick just fine.

Central to the definition of brainwashing is its ability to adjust not only your beliefs, but your values. It’s not simply that Olivia was meant to believe that she won an Olympic medal for sharp shooting, but that she should adopt the agenda and morality of the otherworld government–just as Patty Hearst was brainwashed into adopting the agenda of her bank-robbing kidnappers, or captured American soldiers during the Korean War were brainwashed into adopting the beliefs of the communist, totalitarian country.

No matter the goals of brainwashing, there are a couple of common steps. First, the victim can’t be allowed to meet her own needs, instead depending on her captors or controllers for food, water, information, etc. With self-reliance thus removed, captors can more easily go about the business of stripping away the victim’s psychological self by systematically denying everything the victim believes to be true–that Olivia is from another world, that she has no tattoos, etc. Eventually nothing should remain of the victim’s self but the intense notion that the self is bad. At this point, brainwashers offer an alternative: communism, cultism, Fauxlivia. And this system offers salvation, as if saying, “Look, it’s not you that’s bad, it’s your mistaken beliefs.” And choosing to adopt the new beliefs allows the victim to rebuild a new, very different self, one the victim now believes to be so much better than the old self.

(Likewise, Walter and his wife overwrote Peter. In the episode “Subject 13” [3-15], we saw Peter as a child, recently kidnapped from the other world. As vehemently as Peter insisted that Walter and his wife were not his real parents, Walter insisted that Peter was sick for a long time and simply remembered it wrong. Finally, and especially with young Olivia as a kind of bait for belief in this real world, Peter accepted the brainwashing. By the time of the show’s pilot, Peter had entirely forgotten his otherworld origins; he had been completely overwritten.)

But even aided by the three-part cocktail of memory-replacement drugs–“another dose of which may kill her!”–Olivia resisted this brainwashing. How did she do it? Let’s look again at the Korean War, which provided a large enough brainwashing data set to discover some of the factors that make people more or less susceptible to being overwritten. It turns out that the most distinct factor that predicts successful brainwashing is how concretely you believe things before brainwashing starts. But it’s the flip of what you might think–interestingly, American soldiers who originally held rigid belief systems were more likely to flip and adopt communism, while soldiers whose original beliefs were flexible were more likely to bend their beliefs while in captivity and spring back to their original values once released.

And Olivia, who is every day forced to admit the existence of grey area between possible and impossible, would necessarily have flexible beliefs. She can bend without breaking, holding onto her original self even in the face of facts that seem to contradict it.

In fact, this bending encapsulates Fringe’s take on memory science as a whole. They flex but don’t break it, stretching science like saltwater taffy but stopping just short of the snapping point. In the immortal words of the great TV philosopher Homer Simpson, “It’s funny because it’s true,” and in the case of Fringe, it’s frightening and fascinating and forceful specifically because it’s all possible–or at least plausible–firmly planted in that very sweet spot between science and fiction. Fringe hangs its hat on fact: memory is weird and wild, and at the end of the day, nearly as malleable as Fringe would have us believe.

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