The Magic of Not Knowing: New Zealand's Only Centre for Memory Extraction
It had all the makings of a bad end: three unlikely friends brought together by circumstance, a little-known institute investigating unorthodox memory transplantation techniques, and an email that warned “cell phones rarely work out here.” Rosabel Tan reports.
The Jonesonian Institute: in actuality just a converted shed with dust collecting on the shelves. Against the left wall: a magnificent floor-to-ceiling cupboard, its doors firmly shut, and on the right, a window overlooking the garden and a workbench with various spiral-bound catalogues on display. In the far corner was a low table covered in glass preserving jars. The place smelled faintly sweet, sawdust mixed with something else. The kind of place that seems innocuous enough – but there was something about the woman. The director. J. I. Sutherland. I couldn’t be sure, but my feeling was this: it was the same woman. It was Isabel. The woman who’d greeted us when we arrived. The photographic artist. In fact, I was sure of it. It was her. She’d changed her outfit, but it was her. It was.
She beckoned us over to the bench. “The Institute opened its doors in Dunedin,” she intoned, in a voice that was deeper and more British than Isabel’s, “But recently we shifted to Auckland. For the warmer weather,” she joked, but I couldn’t focus. I felt overcome by panic and by an uncontrollable desire to burst into laughter. As she continued telling us its history, I stared down, biting my lip, determined to stay composed. I kept thinking, “Oh shit.” I kept thinking, “This woman has gone batty.”
But beyond that, what else can you do?
“Just Skyped my partner,” José announced as he slid into the backseat. It was ten in the morning and we were parked outside his Avondale home. “We said our goodbyes.” He stated this with such an unsettling solemnity that I twisted in my seat to look at him. He stared back, unblinking. “Hey Matt,” he said.
“Hey.” Matt peered in the rear-view mirror. “Good thinking.”
Dramatics aside, we genuinely didn’t know what to expect, and as we wound our way through the long West Auckland roads, we speculated on what the day would entail. There wasn’t much to go on. Matt had stumbled upon the Institute while compiling a new book for the Automobile Association, and apart from the scant information he’d diligently uncovered in his research, there was little else available online. We knew that the Institute claimed to have pioneered a number of memory extraction techniques – some more successful than others – and was in the process of developing a transplantation procedure that would fulfil basic human desires like immortality and a happy childhood for all.
“Which is in no way possible,” I commented, fiddling with the latch on my camera bag. “But what if someone’s cutting up people’s brains out there, on the assumption that it is?” I stared out the window as we sailed across an intersection, silently relieved I wasn’t going alone. “Matt,” I said, “That was a red light.”
There was a pause. “Shit,” he said.
The problem is that memory extraction isn't a total impossibility. It’s one that exists beyond the reality we know, but research continues casting closer in its direction. We know that our memories are located in the hippocampus, and that neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are characterised by significant atrophy in that region. We know that it’s possible to target specific memories. That’s how one branch of therapy for PTSD works. You administer a drug like propranolol – initially used as anti-anxiety medication – and ask the person to recall their trauma in as much detail as they can.
“Recalling a memory isn’t like taking a book from your personal library, reading it and putting it back,” I explained, “It’s more like taking that book, reading it, and then writing everything you remember in another book. And that’s the book you put back on the shelf.”
That’s how drugs like propranolol work. They target the emotional content of a memory by dampening the distress you feel when you retrieve it, and thus the amount of distress when you reconsolidate it. The memory of the event isn’t erased, just the degree to which it prevents you from functioning normally on a day-to-day basis.
Explaining this in the car had a calming effect, like some sort of perverse rosary. “If they offer to extract one of your memories,” Matt said, glancing at me, “Will you do it?” We were driving along Huia Road at this stage, surrounded by towering trees and native bush. It was an overcast day and the air was sweet, heavy, threatening to cling to your skin, and true to the email we’d received, we had no reception, and my attempt to publish a tweet jokingly alerting people to our whereabouts had failed.
I slid my phone back into my bag and laughed, loudly, and for a second too long. “Absolutely,” I said.
We missed the turnoff the first time round. We’d been looking for a large building, but it became apparent we weren’t going to find one. “Imagine if it’s just a house,” we joked as we doubled back.
It was. “Ohmigod,” I exclaimed dumbly as the car crawled up the steep driveway. “It’s a house?"
I was struggling to comprehend what bearing this would have on the Institute’s practices when we reached the top of the driveway. There was a woman in a white t-shirt and cropped grey hair standing there, watching us . She walked over as we parked. “Hello,” she smiled. She seemed pleasant. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Isabel. She was a photographic artist who helped with the administrative aspects of the Institute, and who in return was given a space to work in. “I thought I’d show you around my studio,” she said, “And then the curator will give you a tour of the Institute.”
She led us into a cramped laundry room. Hanging on the walls were printed canvases of local landscapes, generic-looking forests and streams that shone almost silver. There was a tiny square window on the left that looked into the adjoining house, and underneath that was a trolley showcasing tie-dyed silks. “I also do a lot of work with photograms,” she told us, pulling out a portfolio. “But in colour, which means you can’t have any light at all.” She explained the process of having to arrange all the materials in the darkroom before working in pitch blackness. “But that’s what I like about it,” she said. “The magic of not knowing what you’ll end up with.”
The images were abstract - heavy, vibrant hues with shadowy details. Occasionally you’d make out a string of beads, a fern, a petal. “Right,” she said, watching us flip through her portfolios. “I'll get the curator.”
Once she had left, I placed the portfolio back on the bench and looked around. Matt was flipping through a collection of highly-saturated close-ups of rusting machinery. José was peeking back through the door we’d come through.
“Do we stay in here?” I murmured.
There was a gauzy maroon curtain separating the studio from another room, and through it you could make out the silhouette of a workbench positioned underneath a long window. There was a scratching sound from the other end, but then it stopped and I thought I might have imagined it. “What do you think is through there,” I said to nobody in particular.
A gust of wind rushed through the trees outside, creating a distant rustling sound that sounded almost like rain. I fingered the edge of the curtain, wanting to pull it back, but it felt rude, and luckily I didn’t because a few seconds later a figure approached from the other side.
“Hello,” the woman said, pulling the curtain aside. She had cropped grey hair and was wearing a black blouse patterned with multi-coloured cursive. Affixed to her blouse was a name tag. “I’m J. I. Sutherland,” she said. “And I’m the curator of the Jonesonian Institute. Come in.”
Her friend had been diagnosed with dementia a few years ago. “It was then I realised I’d become the carrier of both of our memories,” she explained. It’s why she opened the Institute. She smiled. It was a sad smile. “Our ultimate aim,” she continued, gesturing to the mission statement hanging on the wall, a laminated piece of cream-coloured card, “Is to collect and preserve memories for transplantation.”
“Part of it is about immortality. About preserving memories until the technology for implantation has been perfected – which is less messy than cryogenically freezing a person. But it’s also about creating a library so that everyone can one day have a happy childhood.”
“A happy childhood,” I echoed uncertainly. “Of course.”
She walked over to the tall cupboard behind us and dragged the doors open, revealing shelves upon shelves of preserving jars, each filled with trinkets and labelled with bad puns. A jar of cicada shells was labelled, ‘Memories of previous lives’. A plastic panda was ‘Being panda’d to.’
“This is just a bit of fun.” She picked up a jar of marbles, labelled ‘Spare Marbles (In Case of Loss)’, and grinned.
We were allowed to pick up the jars, to examine them. “There are even some adult ones on the top shelf,” she winked. But I was interested in the bottom shelf, in the small cardboard box filled with CDs, each labelled with various client numbers. “So are you extracting memories at the moment?” I asked.
She nodded enthusiastically and told us that behind this Institute was an acre of land. Nestled in the centre was a separate facility where they conducted the actual business of researching new procedures. Sadly, because we were only visitors, she couldn’t take us onsite. “I’m sure you understand,” she said. I looked at her carefully. She seemed serious. She seemed to believe what she was saying.
“And the transplants?”
“Yes,” she inhaled heavily. “We’ve had a bit of difficulty perfecting the procedure – we’ve had issues with bodies rejecting the memories, and in other cases it's led to psychosis. So we’ve had to put that on hold for now.”
I blinked. “What?” but she didn’t seem to hear.
She couldn’t show us brain tissue – that was stored in the laboratory. “But I can show you this.” She reached behind me and retrieved a manila folder from a high shelf. “These are from an earlier experiment we conducted.” She handed me two images that appeared to be micrographs of some kind of cellular structure – black and white hexagonal cells tessellated across the page. “This is before transplantation.” She pointed at the one in my left hand and explained that we were looking at a client whose memories had been depleted. “This next image,” she told us, “Is that same brain after the memory transplantation.”
The room was quiet as we looked at the second image. The spaces between the cells were marked with vibrant streaks of red and purple, not unlike the colours of activation you’d see on an fMRI. “As you can see,” she said, pride in her voice. “This brain here appears much more alive.”
“It does,” José said, looking over my shoulder. “It does look more alive.”
Satisfied, she moved on. “We also offer our clients a special service,” she pulled out the Institute’s most recent bulletin and flicked to a page about halfway through. As part of the programme, she explained, they visually rendered selected childhood memories.
“What’s interesting,” she commented, “Is that a lot of our clients represent themselves as their current age when they’re reliving their past memories.” She pointed at the first image: a balding old man wearing a large cloth nappy and clutching a faded teddy bear.
Over the page: an old woman with thin, gold-rimmed spectacles and a blue ribbon in her hair, wearing a child’s smock and sitting at a table, her fist wrapped around an oversized crayon, a glass of milk on a coaster in front of her. The same woman, on a couch this time, her legs tucked underneath her, surrounded by old board games, sticking her tongue out at somebody off-screen. Another man, also bald, but clothed - a woollen sweater, gray shorts, socks and sandals – lying on his stomach next to a fireplace, kicking his feet in the air, reading from a children’s annual, beaming with delight.
It was the most jarring part of the Institute, this series of elderly strangers unselfconsciously and playfully donning the trappings of toddlers. There was a certain sadness to the images, the conviction and happiness belying a desperation, a delusion. “These are really beautiful,” I told her quietly. I meant it. They were unbelievably powerful, capturing something very real about the ageing process. That desire to relive our best memories, to start again, and that question of how a memory so old can form who we are today.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “I like these too.”
We thanked her for showing us around, and as we walked back to where we'd parked, it struck me how removed it was up here, up on this hill in Huia. It was just her, this Institute, surrounded by all this land, a space so serene, so strangely isolated. Beyond the house, through the trees, you could see down to the water, rippling and reflecting the afternoon sun, dulled that day by the clouds.
“There’s a cafe down by the bridge,” she told us, “I’ve been told they make nice coffee down there.”
“We’ll check it out.” I said, waving one last time before getting into the car. She had given us card-sized prints of her photograms, a souvenir of our time there, and as we drove away I inspected mine. It was bright pink with shadows of what looked like flax, too indistinct to see true detail, but the shape was there, or it seemed to be, perhaps, though only just.
The Jonesonian Institute is located on Huia Road and is open to the public by prior appointment (email: email@example.com)