Learning to play the piano by taking a pill

Jul 17 2014, 15:20 IST
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SummaryIn a recent TED talk, digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte rekindled hopes for a ‘skill pill’

In a recent TED talk, digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte rekindled hopes for a ‘skill pill’, suggesting that in the slightly distant future, we shall be able to ingest culture and knowledge orally instead of learning them through the traditional visual and auditory routes. The red pill for learning Japanese, the pink one a booster dose for digging Basho. Something like that, anyway. Negroponte did not go into the details, but cautioned that we shall not see any working models in three decades. That was admirably cautious, because this line of thought was relegated to the realm of science fiction three decades ago. This is not to say, however, that it will never take a U-turn back into the territory of science.

And it had generated a fair amount of good science fiction. Alan Moore used it to create the back story for the Swamp Thing: it was made of vegetal matter that had ingested a human, including its memories, knowledge and skills. Star Trek storylines featured a drip for memories. The great Larry Niven used it more than once as the protocol for the transmission of data between organisms.

At the time, the theory had a scientific basis: the work of the radical American biologist James V McConnell in the 1950s and 1960s, which suggested that long-term memories could be encoded in a type of ribonucleic acid which he named mRNA. If mRNA could be transmitted between organisms, memories and knowledge could travel between them—and would be downloaded naturally to succeeding generations, roughly in support of Lamarck.

The theory was one of the outcomes of a search for the brain’s mechanism of storing knowledge. While experience is stored through an organism’s lifetime and forms the basis of learning, there appears to be no obviously growing physical storage. Watson, Crick and Wilkins’ world-altering discovery of the structure of DNA stirred the scientific imagination. If DNA could store the information for building an organism and transmit its data to progeny, perhaps RNA could encode the sensory data of a lifetime, too?

In 1955 at the University of Texas, McConnell and Robert Thompson conditioned planarian flatworms to associate a bright light with an electric shock, until they reacted negatively to the light alone. Planarians are primitive organisms which regenerate into two organisms when cut in half. They found that the regenerated planarians learned to associate the light with the shock much faster than the original. This behaviour

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