Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

By Somnath Das

Somnath Das recently graduated from Emory University where he majored in Neuroscience and Chemistry. He will be attending medical school at Thomas Jefferson University starting in the Fall of 2017. The son of two Indian immigrants, he developed an interest in healthcare after observing how his extended family sought help from India's healthcare system to seek relief from chronic illnesses. Somnath’s interest in medicine currently focuses on understanding the social construction of health and healthcare delivery. Studying Neuroethics has allowed him to combine his love for neuroscience, his interest in medicine, and his wish to help others into a multidisciplinary, rewarding practice of scholarship which to this day enriches how he views both developing neurotechnologies and the world around him. 

Humans in the 21st century have an intimate relationship with technology. Much of our lives are spent being informed and entertained by screens. Technological advancements in science and medicine have helped and healed in ways we previously couldn’t dream of. But what unanticipated consequences may be lurking behind our rapid expansion into new technological territory? This question is continually being explored in the British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror, which provides a glimpse into the not-so-distant future and warns us to be mindful of how we treat our technology and how it can affect us in return. This piece is part of a series of posts that will discuss ethical issues surrounding neuro-technologies featured in the show and will compare how similar technologies are impacting us in the real world. 

*SPOILER ALERT* - The following contains plot spoilers for the Netflix television series Black Mirror.

Image courtesy of Flickr user
As the population ages, diseases of memory impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease have become of increasing concern across the globe. In fact, for adults over 55, Alzheimer’s is the number one feared disease (more than cancer). According to the Alzheimer’s association, deaths due to heart disease have declined by 14%, whereas deaths arising from Alzheimer’s disease-related causes have risen by 89%. Memory enhancement has also been explored by researchers as a way of enhancing – or dampening – functionally normal memory. Various techniques aimed at enhancing memory have explored the possibility of modulating memory’s various components, ranging from enhancing molecular processes to altering systemic neurotransmission (Stern & Alberini 2013; Suthana et al. 2012).

What if we could use a device that allows us to record our memories in real-time? Black Mirror explores this possibility in an episode entitled, “The Entire History of You,” by proposing a future where every person is implanted with a device behind their ears, called the “grain,” which performs this function. The grain records the user’s life in real time and allows the user to replay and modify past memories. The grain, in essence, serves as a form of memory prosthesis.

Plot Summary and Technology Used

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“The Entire History of You” begins with Liam, who uses his grain to re-watch a recent interview
repeatedly, thinking he did not perform up to expectations. He uses the grain’s functionality to zoom in on the interviewer’s body language, scrutinizing their responses and subtly hinting how the device encourages paranoid tendencies. At a dinner party, he notices his wife, Ffion, talking to a man, Jonas, that he doesn’t recognize, thus arousing Liam’s suspicions. When the couple returns home, Ffion admits to Liam that she had a relationship with Jonas and that she had lied about the time they spent together. This causes a fight between the couple, and even though they apologize and make-up, Liam’s suspicions continue to linger. He eventually goes downstairs and, under the influence of alcohol, uses his grain to re-watch his wife’s conversations with Jonas at the dinner party. In a fit of rage, Liam drives to Jonas’ house, threatening to cut out Jonas’ grain if he doesn’t delete the memories of his prior relationship with Ffion. The next morning, Liam replays the incident, zooming in on the list of memories Jonas deleted. He noticed that there was footage of Jonas and Ffion having sex that was taken 18 months ago, around the time their daughter, Jodie, was conceived. After confronting Ffion about the footage, it suddenly becomes unclear as to who was the father of Jodie. The episode ends with Liam walking around his house, replaying his memories with Jodie. He then goes to the bathroom and removes the grain using a razor blade.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Everybody is implanted with the grain from birth, so the technology is not considered a form of enhancement (in fact, removing the grain may be so). One of the guests revealed that she had her grain forcibly removed, and that she prefers to remain grain-free. With the grain, the user can record memories in ultra high-definition (evidenced by the fact that Liam was able to zoom in on previous memories), replay them an unlimited number times, and even project their memories to be seen by others. The user can also selectively dampen their memories by deleting either segments or entire memories. What the show leaves unclear, likely on purpose, is how this device interacts with or changes the brain. For example, would Jonas be able to remember his time with Ffion, or at least their emotional connection, despite deleting all of their episodic memories on the grain? And, do these devices enhance or ultimately worsen the brain’s capacity for memory because of decreased reliance
– or decreased dependence – on our own biology?

The Current State of Technology: How close are we to memory BCIs, and how would they work?

While Black Mirror proposes a device that is similar to a camera with video-editing software that interacts with our brain and replaces declarative memory, scientists are currently exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to modulate memory in a slightly different manner. The BCIs currently being explored use recorded neural activity to improve and optimize the brain’s own capacity to encode and store memories.

This year has seen a remarkable increase of interest in BCIs and memory modulation from a variety of stakeholders. The U.S. Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to begin implanting memory prosthetics for veterans with traumatic brain injury in 2018Kernel, a startup company, also recently revealed its aim to develop a BCI that aids those with memory problems. The company’s goals are largely clinical, aiming to help people suffering from traumatic brain injury or dementias including Alzheimer’s disease. This memory-prosthetic device would be implanted into the hippocampus. In a similar vein to deep brain stimulation (DBS) used to treat Parkinson’s disease, the device will aim to take the brain’s electrical signals and augment them to improve memory. In the context of Kernel’s device, the BCI would supplant the function of the hippocampus, encoding the process of learning into electrical signals and integrating these signals into the cortex.

Logo of the transhumanist movement.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Kernel’s project is largely based off of the research of USC biomedical engineer and neuroscientist Theodore Berger. Berger’s early research focused on Pavlovian conditioning in rabbits; he discovered that as the rabbits were learning to associate a tone with a puff of air – and subsequently blink when the tone was played – one region of their brains displayed a consistent and reliable pattern of electrical activity, indicating learning. His research currently focuses on recording neural substrates of memory and mathematically modeling them for use in memory prosthetic devices – a goal that is part of his Transhumanist aim to eventually create human cyborgs free of disability. He has published data that demonstrates a neuroprosthetic device’s ability to improve non-human primate hippocampal CA1-CA3 firing – a critical circuit in memory formation in the hippocampus (Hampson et al. 2013).

A study by Burke et al. (2013) demonstrated a potential mechanism of how a BCI may improve free recall in humans. Burke’s group recorded electrical activity in epileptic patients during a recall task (these patients already had electrodes implanted in their brain for therapeutic purposes). The intent of their BCI was to record patterns of pre-stimulus hippocampal activity to determine the optimal time to present images to recall later. When asked to recall, BCI patients were presented with words in accordance with the optimal electrical patterns as determined by EEG recording and the BCI, and it was found that the BCI improved the recall of these patients when compared to controls in more sessions than was expected by chance.

Other researchers are devoting increased attention to understanding how our brains encode visual sensory data. In 2011, Jack Gallant and his team successfully developed a model that allowed them to visualize how the brain – specifically the visual cortex – encodes data from natural movies (movies about nature). What remains to be seen, however, is whether Gallant’s et al.’s model is accurate for higher visual areas that process more complex aspects of vision. BCIs in the future could focus on using the findings of Gallant’s team in order to collect and store visual memories, which would hover closer to the technology used in Black Mirror.

Ethical Considerations: What Black Mirror gets right and what it misses

Despite the push by Kernel and others to create memory prosthetics, there remains to be a clear consensus on whether researchers possess enough knowledge of the brain’s memory encoding processes to make such devices. To achieve his own dream of making the devices available to the general public, Berger will have to test the devices on a variety of clinical populations outside of patients with epilepsy and the elderly. Additionally, Berger’s approach involves the codification of memory consolidation in a controlled setting. It could be that, for example, researchers fail to capture the true range of human memory consolidation in their codification, calling into question the ability of computers to replicate a complex process that is influenced by a host of other factors such as emotions and a multitude of physical sensations.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Privacy is also a significant concern. The technology in Black Mirror integrates smoothly and seamlessly with the user’s perception of the world, able to record and replay memories in real-time. The user can replay memories either “in their minds,” or project them on a television screen. The science behind creating a wearable recording technology that is similar to Black Mirror’s is within reach; yet, early versions of wearable recording technology are facing widespread consumer backlash. Google Glass, a pair of “smart glasses” that could take photos on command, faced remarkable negative criticism due to privacy concerns about the data collected by Google. A 2016 study by Takabi, Bhalotiya, and Alohaly found that the many third-party developers for current BCIs used in a wide variety of contexts such as gaming possess virtually unrestricted access to raw EEG data from users. These developers additionally possess a fairly strong locus of control over the stimuli shown to the users, leaving the question of how the users’ data will be used in context. The authors point out that while raw EEG data does have strong implications for clinical research, this data can also be used or sold to other third-parties and used for malicious intents. Additionally, the authors note that the ability of computational to trace brain signals back to users is growing, and therefore even if data is made anonymous, these protections may not be enough. Therefore, as BCIs are used for increasingly personal and therapeutic contexts (such as improving memory), computer scientists, neuroscientists, policymakers, and clinicians must work together to develop stronger protections for both user and patient neural data.

Image courtesy of Armed with Science.
Finally, as BCIs become more available as a treatment option, there will need to be a clear consensus communicated to physicians as to what specific aspects of memory these devices could enhance, and how these aspects of memory are modulated with respect to human memory’s various psychological and anatomical components. As with technologies still in clinical trials involving stimulation of the brain, potential conflation of therapeutic and experimental intents will need to be addressed in the clinic prior to consent and implantation. Bioethicist James Giordano worries that these devices could blur the links between emotion and memory, further threatening the identity of vulnerable patients in a diseased or disabled state. Black Mirror hints that even if these devices were to enhance declarative memory, they could worsen paranoid tendencies and traumatic associations with various memories. In their qualitative study of neurosurgical patients, Lipsman, Zener, & Bernstein (2013) observed that while patients undergoing invasive neurosurgery consider threats to identity as being outweighed by life-threatening conditions, they have considerable doubts about cosmetic and enhancement neurosurgery. Is dementia considered “life-threatening” enough for patients to accept potentially risky BCIs? And how about these devices within enhancement contexts?


The approach and philosophy adopted by Black Mirror of a camera for everybody’s brain may be reflected in the minds and aspirations of those in Silicon Valley; yet, scientists and neuroscientists are currently devoting increased attention on improving the state of internal memory encoding contained within our own biology. In contrast to how memory prosthesis is presented in Black Mirror, scientists and clinicians are investigating these devices for largely therapeutic purposes. Furthermore, the public perception of technologies that seek to record and digitally store memories (such as Google Glass) is that of significant concern. That being said, the safety and science behind memory prosthetic implantation still remains to be thoroughly investigated. Can all aspects of memory be fully coded into a BCI? How do we communicate the realities of memory prosthesis effectively to patients with disabilities and their families? Finally, how do we effectively protect patient neural data from being sold to third-parties or from being identified by others? While Black Mirror is a show meant for entertainment and available neurotechnologies are far from anything close to the “grain” device, science fiction also provides an opportunity for us to consider our current realities and potential futures.


Burke, J. F., Merkow, M. B., Jacobs, J., Kahana, M. J., & Zaghloul, K. A. (2014). Brain computer interface to enhance episodic memory in human participants. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1055. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.01055

Farah, M. J. (2015). An ethics toolbox for neurotechnology. Neuron, 86(1), 34-37. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.03.038

Hampson, R. E., Song, D., Opris, I., Santos, L. M., Shin, D. C., Gerhardt, G. A., … Deadwyler, S. A. (2013). Facilitation of Memory Encoding in Primate Hippocampus by a Neuroprosthesis that Promotes Task Specific Neural Firing. Journal of Neural Engineering, 10(6), 066013. http://doi.org/10.1088/1741-2560/10/6/066013

Lipsman, N., Zener, R., & Bernstein, M. (2009). Personal identity, enhancement and neurosurgery: a qualitative study in applied neuroethics. Bioethics, 23(6), 375-383. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01729.x 

Ramesh, Sunidhi. (2017). The [Sea] Monster Inside Me. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on July 11, 2017, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/05/the-sea-monster-inside-me.html

Sahu, S. (2017). M[Emory] Enhancement and its Implications. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on July 11, 2017, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/03/memory-enhancement-and-its-implications.html

Stern, S. A., & Alberini, C. M. (2013). Mechanisms of memory enhancement. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Systems Biology and Medicine, 5(1), 37-53. DOI: 10.1002/wsbm.1196

Want to cite this post?

Das, S. (2017). The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: The Entire History of You. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/08/the-neuroethics-blog-series-on-black_3.html

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