Memories, nature, and instincts are some of the few things that “make” us. Where do these come from? From us, parents, grandparents, and so on. In Assassin’s Creed games, you visit your ancestor’s memories with the help of a machine named Animus. With this fascinating concept in mind, it makes us wonder how close or far are we from this science-fiction.
Do we have ancestral memories? Do memories pass along? Is there technology to process these memories? Let’s see.
As far as Assassin’s Creed goes, memories of ancestors are passed down from their bloodline. So, Desmond (present-day hero) can relive Altair’s (1000 AD Assassin) memories because of this. Similarly, you could relive memories of ancestors in your bloodline, for instance. You’d simply lay down on the Animus and let it play memories like a VR game.
In our world, memories are said to be stored in our brains exclusively. It is accurate but there is still more to it. You see, since time immemorial scientists have suggested that ancestors pass down ‘traits’, ‘impulses’, etc. as part of evolution. These traits stemming from certain memories. Also, this applies to animals as well. Darwin, for instance, had the theory of ‘pangenesis’. Basically, it entailed that a body emits tiny particles called gemmules which pass on to offsprings. This theory was similar to Lamarckism. Both theories were dismissed in those days.
However, more recent experiments led to a new field of study called ‘epigenetics’ which makes the earlier theories credible. In simple terms, epigenetics means the working of DNA instead of DNA itself. Consider meta-data. If you have songs, that’s DNA. Adding shuffle, repeats, skips, playlists, etc to it is epigenetics.
Carl Jung, a famous psychologist, invented a theory named ‘collective unconscious’. It suggests that certain aspects such as fears, instincts, memories, etc. encompass all of our species. Also, it says that we inherit certain traits in our genes. Freud believed this to be due to personal experiences. That said, Jungl believed humans could tap into this unconscious only when necessary. The word ‘Animus’, also means ‘memory’.
So, How are Memories Passed Along, if They do?
Here, epigenetics prove helpful. Research has found genetically mutated roundworms to live 30% more than expected. Furthermore, the offsprings of those worms had a greater life-span as well. We already know our DNA indicates life-span. Epigenetics goes ahead and makes the changes by ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches in our genes. Genes are nothing but instructions in DNA. Through epigenetic methods, research shows potential ways of determining if a young bee (or larva) will become a queen bee. Roundworms and bees are more direct examples of epigenetics. The Aplysia experiment too.
Environmental and external factors also take part in epigenetics. Descendants of slaves, refugees, war prisoners, calamity survivors, etc. are a few types of people said to have altered genes. The Dutch Famine is an example. The people who went through the famine had smaller than average children. Also, they had a higher risk of diabetes and other health issues. The same was seen for later generations.
Desmond, in Assassin’s Creed, learns his ancestor’s traits and abilities. Considering the above two paragraphs, maybe that’s how Ubisoft got the idea. In Assassin’s Creed, it is called ‘bleeding effect’.
Epigenetics might show us that memories, traits, and such do reside in our genes or DNA. However, it wouldn’t mean much if there was no technology to bring those memories in front of us.
Various scientific bodies, including Microsoft, have looked into the idea of DNA-based storage devices. In recent years, teams have automated the read-and-write process of data onto DNA. How does it work? In simple terms, genetic bases are represented by chemical letters A, C, G, and T. Now, these letters can be converted to binary, 1s and 0s. Computers deal with binaries and not the letters.
DNA-based data storage has a better density (grams of DNA capable of holding thousands of GB), can last millennia, and can be replicated easily. Although, this is expensive and slow. So, right now companies are making efforts to speed up this process and make it accessible to many people. For instance, Microsoft’s ‘Purple Drop’ project.
Intel, Catalog, etc are also finding ways of making DNA-based storage the mainstream storage of tomorrow. In other words, you might one day store your life memories into a pen-drive for your children to see. An advanced version of a photo album, you could say.
Till then, we’ll just wait for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla!
Here at FictionTalk, we look into the science that goes behind interesting stories all around us! If you want more, visit our take on Science Behind Time Perception Drugs and Science Behind Frankenstein.