We have been stimulating our brains either for research or to treat illness in people: using a minute electrical current a computer can target a specific region of the brain or a specific neuron to control our emotion, memory, muscles you name it. Read this interesting article!

My question is: is the reverse be possible - can a malicious computer program download itself into our DNA and reprogram our memory? Is there any cure for us besides downloading an antivirus program into the same DNA?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Part of the televised series of Dirk Gently explored this concept. If you're in the UK you can still see it on BBC iPlayer for free... bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01dc582 $\endgroup$ – AJFaraday Jul 13 '15 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ "downloading an antivirus program into the same DNA" where do you think the term virus came from? $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Jul 13 '15 at 17:56

Be careful of your phenomenology: memory is not stored in DNA. So "can a malicious computer program download itself into our DNA and reprogram our memory?" is technically a no. Furthermore, at present there is no obvious way for a program to modify DNA in the first place. Electrodes and current just don't work at that level.

Is there a way for a computer to modify memory, especially specific memories? Well, there are inklings of the shadow of how to do it coming out http://www.nature.com/news/flashes-of-light-show-how-memories-are-made-1.15330 This, however, is a very new approach, and it may have more to do with the emotional freight attached to memory rather than the specific experiences being stored. It's potentially useful, for instance, for desensitizing traumatic memories such as are found in PTSD, but not necessarily changing the facts being remembered.

Memory is a particularly slippery phenomenon, and there may be ways to selectively alter memories, but the idea of a computer searching your memory like a data bank, finding a particular memory, and then altering it do not seem likely any time soon, and may well not be possible at all.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ +1. But I wouldn't say "may well not be possible at all" - it's obviously possible, since your brain can do it - and your brain is just another computer. It may be well out of our reach, but it must be possible. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 13 '15 at 10:04
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Brain is definitely not "just another computer". It (1) works on organic chemistry, not electricity (2) has more complicated connections (one neuron can connect to tens of thousands of other neurons) and (3) we barely have idea how consciousness emerges at all. Brain is NOT powered by simple binary logic like computer is. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Jul 13 '15 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ One of the challenges is that memory is 'holographic' in the sense that it is not stored in any one place. When you change part of one memory, you inevitably change others at the same time, since the 'circuits' underlying memory are not isolated and nicely partitioned. Even when you 'recall' a memory, you're not really activating one pattern in isolation, but rather activating a tapestry of overlapping impressions, which interact with processing of the sensory environment to ultimately result in actions. In a sense, memory is not independent of its triggers; it is deeply entrained therein. $\endgroup$ – Dan Bryant Jul 13 '15 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Based on what we know, such a process would require some sort of nanomachinery to invade every synapse of every neuron, map their states, communicate back to a central computer, then accept commands which would cause them to alter the synaptic states on an individual basis, AND do this without in any way altering normal neural functioning. It is hardly obvious that "it must be possible". $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jul 13 '15 at 14:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar - You are using a very, VERY limited definition of a computer. The brain is "just another computer", just not "just another digital computer". In fact, the origin of the word computer originally referred to a "person who carried out calculations". In effect, computer use to actually refer to people. $\endgroup$ – Fake Name Jul 13 '15 at 19:46

Theoretically, yes, but it will have nothing at all to do with DNA. DNA is several layers below the human consciousness, and reprogramming at that level has more to do with changing the behavior of the next generation rather than possessing the current generation.

However, it is difficult. Computers speak "regular" languages which are very easy to understand, so very easy to subvert. Each brain is wired totally different, so you would have to customize the virus for each brain.

As for an antivirus, we actually have one, so you don't have to worry about it. Culture and society already does this. If you look at everything from medieval religion to modern scientific trends, they all share at least one common trait: they train the brain to be less susceptible to takeover from external sources (besides themselves, of course. They allow themselves to continue taking over). Any computer virus seeking to bridge the gap into human minds will find the mind particularly hostile to such activity.

There have been some science fiction books which play with this sort of system, but they usually focus on addiction. It is believed that it is very easy to get someone addicted to an electrical stimulus. However, that is a far cry from possession.

  • $\begingroup$ Religious texts as antivirus, very Stephenson. $\endgroup$ – Deolater Jul 13 '15 at 19:32

If you have an AI at least as intelligent as a human, then there are probably a number of ways in which it could exert varying degrees of control over a human - largely the same ways in which an intelligent and unscrupulous human could do the same thing: promises, lies, manipulative behaviour, threats, drugs, hypnosis, etc.

Since this is an SF setting, there may be other ways, depending on the technologies that exist in your setting. Is there any way in which memories and or personality can be copied into and out-of a human brain ? If so, an AI might be able to format such a "backup" to re-write a human's personality.

There might also be surgical approaches where an AI could replace a human's brain with a computer (probably one with significant organic components, as it would need to run off the human's blood). Or it could add implants to oversee the brain - conditioning it to behave in ways that were acceptable to the AI.

As others have said though, probably not much involvement of DNA in these sort of schemes.


The simple answer to your question is no. The technology to do such a thing doesn't exist as yet and may never do.

Since this is WB then it is possible to conceive of WB scenarios where it can happen? Absolutely yes. Its a fairly widespread trope of Sci-Fi that's been explored by a number of authors ranging from Ken MacLeod (Fall Revolution series) and Peter Watts (Firefall). Also present in film such as the Matrix Trilogy where Agent Smith takes over a human body.

One key thing for you to think about is whether you are thinking primarily about DNA modification or memory modification as they are very different things.

One is modifying the existing structure of the brain (its software) the other is modifying the blueprint for how a human is built (its hardware schematic).

Ken Macleod and the matrix covers the former - AI's altering/overwriting our brains like a computer virus in various ways ranging from accessing pre-existing radio implants or direct re-writing via the optic nerve.

Peter Watts approach combines both the former and hints at the latter. The latter hints at a phenomenon called emergent complexity - essentially developing complex constructions (in this case a human/AI hybrid) from simpler structures - in this case DNA. Peter Watt's approach describes an alien doing this - but we could use the same approach for an AI - as by definition they are an alien and possibly more superior lifeform. Taking this approach its conceivable using some kind of Hand-wavium that an AI for some reason might chose to create a human embryo with its DNA pre-encoded to generate a copy/facsimile of itself.

How/Why it would do this rather than just taking over a pre-existing human would be an additional exercise for your world building/plotting.

If you go down this route you will probably want to do some reading about the differences between the human genome and the human proteome.


I read some books about biochemistry a long time ago and that's all. So, direct from my deficient memory:

There are some stuff in the cells that are blocking parts of DNA/RNA from activate and some other stuff that release this blockings. This control the production of proteins and therefore a lot of other biochemical processes. I guess that the impact of this holistic feedback on our biological environment, i.e. our bodies, is incomprehensible unlimited.

It might be so that we interact in this process with our attitudes, thoughts, actions and so on and that computer programs can be designed to interact with humans who are interacting with their chemistry in a way that reprogram their memories.

But it's a long way to develope an operating system that control this complex feedback system.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.