It turns out that the 24th century is a dangerous time for your brain. If the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D is any example, serving aboard a Federation starship — or even living anywhere a Federation starship might pass by — raises the chances of having your mind messed with to near 100%.
You might be a member of a pre-warp civilization that just happened to see the wrong thing at the wrong time, in which case it's up to the ship's doctor to perform a memory wiping procedure on you, like Sarjenka of Drema IV ("Pen Pals"), or Liko of Mintaka III ("Who Watches the Watchers").
You might be on board the Enterprise when an alien civilization decides to stun the entire crew with a highly selective amnesia ray for its own nefarious purposes ("Conundrum"), or knock everyone out with an energy field disguised as a wormhole to hide its existence ("Clues").
But would something like that actually be possible? What is memory, anyway?
Let’s answer the second question first. Common wisdom holds that your memory is like a library of books that your brain is always writing: when you want to remember something, you look up the reference number, pull the right book off the shelf, and open it up. Failures of memory are likened to the books themselves going missing, or the reference numbers falling off (the book's still there, you just can't find it). More recent research seems to paint a different picture: your memory is more like a story you tell yourself over and over, like a looping sound file. Change an element of the file and the loop will keep playing with the change in place, permanently rewritten. This is always happening in your mind. Have you ever heard someone say "Well that's how I remember it!" when they recall something not quite-perfectly? It seems that's less of an excuse and more of a literal truth.
You can also play with memory using neurochemical trickery. Have you ever formed a negative association with a particular object or substance? Something like, "I don't drink tequila anymore after that terrible weekend in the woods." Researchers at Emory University did a lab version of this scenario with mice, meth (seriously) and a drug called Latrunculin A. In their experiment, mice that were injected with the drug failed to form the associations that the other mice did. This is promising news for sufferers of addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine getting uncontrollable cravings for alcohol at the sight of a liquor bottle, or having combat PTSD and jumping every time you hear a loud noise. What if you could take a drug that decoupled those associations in your mind? You could walk down the liquor aisle of a store without a problem, or attend a fireworks display without feeling you’re under attack. The research is still in its infancy — drugs like Latrunculin A are more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel, so the potential for nasty side effects is pretty high — but you haven't heard the last of this procedure.
Speaking of drugs, it turns out run-of-the-mill anesthetics have effects on memory, too. About a third of the patients who undergo surgery have trouble with some of their brain functions after they've been discharged from the hospital, and although they usually recover eventually, a fraction of them can still be fuzzy-headed months later. Scientists at the University of Toronto unraveled this mystery recently: along with dulling pain, anesthetics apparently activate receptors in the brain specifically designed for memory loss, and in some cases, the effect can linger for a long time. The UT researchers recommend taking a pen and paper into the recovery room after surgery so you (or whoever's with you) can write down anything important doctors tell you.
But you don't need to go under the knife to experience something similar… just head to the local dive bar. If you've ever gotten so drunk that you wake up the next morning and cannot remember exactly what happened, blame it on the booze. Alcohol doesn't actually erase your memories, but in sufficient quantities, it can prevent new ones from forming. This is why you can remember the earlier parts of a truly drunken evening, but once you tip over into a state of drunkenness that's referred to as "vortexing" by experienced partygoers, your brain throws in the towel and quits writing events into your memory altogether. It's not that you can't recall them later — they were never in there to begin with.
This, of course, suggests a different, more congenial method for the memory wipe than the one employed by Starfleet Medical or various alien civilizations: all plans or possible violations of the Prime Directive should involve a trip to Ten-Forward and a long line of glasses brimming with the very best in El-Aurian cocktail science, courtesy of Guinan. As long as none of them involve Romulan ale, nobody will even have to suffer a hangover the next day!
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.
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