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It’s not me: it’s the old virus infecting my brain (and yours)

Francisco Miraval

Some time ago, when I was given the opportunity of teaching philosophy, I asked my students to tell me what the did the day before the class, and then two days before, and we kept going until we found a day where nobody in the room remembered what we did on that day. We have reached the end of our collective, continuous memory.

That exercise helped to demonstrate the connection between memory and personal identity. It is obvious that each of us can say we are who we are because we remember our life (or at least parts of our lives). Yet, sooner or later, we will find a “gap” in our memories. If we take it seriously, we could even doubt about our own identity.

And now there is a new element which can create even more doubts about who we truly are, or we think we are. According to a study published last January in Cell (a specialized magazine focusing on experimental biology), our long-term memories are formed thanks to a virus that infected the brain of our ancestors hundreds of million of years ago.

And that virus, or its successors, act now as a platform for our neurons to communicate with each other and, therefore, to create our memories. (For technical details and explanations, please see the above-mentioned publication.)

So, it can be said that everything I remember about my past and also about my expectations about the future is the result of the HIV retrovirus infecting a mammal 400 million years ago. Thanks to that infection, we have now the Arc protein, which is the based for the neurochemical operations of our brains.

I can say, then, that I am not who I think I am. I am just the result of an old virus infection an extinct animal. According to the researchers, without that infection, our brain wouldn’t have the “plasticity” needed to create long-term memories.

In other words, the Arc proteins, needed to have memories, are similar to those retroviruses that infected our ancestors. In the same way that viruses spread their genetic material from cell to cell, Arc proteins encapsulate their ARN and transfer it from neuron to neuron, thus creating memories.

I feel now it’s not me remembering “my” past. After all, “I” don’t even now that a certain infection “created” the proteins now playing games with “my” neurons. Perhaps “I” don’t now it because there is no real “I” to know it.

Should I be upset to this new strike against my own sense of being human? Perhaps I should feel relieved. If fact, it doesn’t matter if I am upset or relieved because there are perhaps many more “viruses” infecting my brain and playing games with my mind.

Is there any reason why I should know that a brain infection that happened hundreds of millions of years ago is still affecting me? Perhaps we should realize how much we still don’t know about what it truly means to be human.

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