If you could copy and paste someone else’s memories into your mind, which ones would you pick? Happy memories? Sad memories? Memories that would imbue you with new and exciting skills? Each would have its benefits, yet each would also have its drawbacks.
Could acquiring new memories change your personality, change the world or even expose your own dark secrets?
Let’s find out as we ask ourselves what would happen if we were to download the memories of others into our own brains.
Changing your personality
One thing this could do is change your personality. The way you act is governed by both the chemicals in your brain and the events you’ve experienced in life. We know that we can influence the former by messing with our grey matter’s chemical makeup, but could adding new memories to your brain fundamentally change who you are as a person?
If it could, the way to do this would be to edit our explicit memory, which is a form of long-term memory, not an archive of a person’s dirtiest-ever fantasies.
Explicit memory requires conscious thought, so if you needed to recall who’s coming to dinner on a particular night, what they’re all allergic to and who’s likely to say something racist, you’d use a part of your explicit memory (called episodic memory).
A large part of your everyday behaviour is governed by the way you remember things happening in the past, so if you were to absorb the memories of someone else today, this might change how you act tomorrow.
If you wanted to make another person more confident, you could do this by adding memories of someone else overcoming adversity to their brain. However, this could take a dark turn, since by giving a person negative memories, you could create a new fear in them. Once a person is scared, they’re yours to control.
Editing your view of the past
You could also edit your view of the past by changing your memories. If you’ve had a terrible life full of woe and failure, you could replace your memories with better ones from someone else’s life.
What would happen to those memories once they were implanted in your mind, though? Would they stay forever pristine and perfect or would the failure so intrinsic to your life degrade them gradually over time?
Though it may seem unlikely, the answer is the latter. Each time you remember something, your brain alters the memory ever so slightly. It’s not like a movie being played back—actually, your memories are more like a lifelong game of Chinese Whispers. Imagine 10 versions of you, with each one taken from a different year, over the past decade.
The opposite of explicit memory is implicit memory and this type controls your subconscious movements, including everything from walking to speaking to driving. Each of these actions is governed by the memories you gained while learning to perform them. If you could download those memories from others, the scope for self-improvement would be endless.
However, if you’re thinking you could just download martial arts lessons from a black belt master and become a ninja, you’re wrong. The key to learning is repetition, so to take on someone else’s abilities, you’d need to take on every memory of every lesson they’ve ever had. It reportedly takes 10,000 hours to master something, so this is the volume of implicit memories you’d need to acquire just to become good at a single task.
In spite of the sheer quantity of memories required, this raises the possibility of a future in which skill sets are bought and sold, with things like Spanish horticulture and erotic breakdancing becoming skills that are able to be learned in an afternoon. Could the brain cope with this many memories flooding in at once?
If your memories were to become confused and the mind were to become oversaturated, you could start weaving baskets while trying to make love, and if someone asked you to speak French, the folk music lessons you downloaded on the same day might make you start playing the air ukulele like a madman.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that many skills require a base level of ability. You couldn’t just seamlessly transfer your memories to someone, allowing them to develop the same capability as you, without them having the same physical aptitude.
For example, I could give anyone the memories of how I’ve trained my luxurious sensual voice, but without my unique vocal cords, you might end up sounding like an epileptic hyena.
The fact is, we still don’t understand the precise manner in which much of our memory works. With the technological advances required before we get there, there’s hope that this may change by the time we develop a memory transplant machine, but even then, there could be gaps in our knowledge. How could we solve that problem?
The advantages of semantic memory
There’s another type of conscious explicit memory that helps you retain facts and information, with these memories being consciously activated whenever you need to know something. Ever woken up next to a cute stranger and forgotten their name? That’s a result of your semantic memory failing you.
Semantic memory enables you to remember that the capital of Germany is Berlin, that milk comes from udders and that brown things often taste delicious, but that’s not all. Semantic memory also helps you retain complex knowledge learned through education.
If we could transfer this, the sharing of factual knowledge directly from person to person could revolutionize humanity’s progress. Complex subjects could be learned at the touch of a button, no knowledge would ever die just because someone’s physical form did, and the world’s greatest minds could continue the work of their predecessors as if they’d never died, at least in regard to knowledge. As with skills, however, many activities require a base level of talent to make the knowledge worthwhile.
This would apply to semantic memories, too. It’s no good knowing how to perform heart surgery if your brain isn’t capable of staying focused enough to correctly perform the surgery. Remember, also, that the utopian idea of sharing knowledge directly between generations ignores one crucial fact about memory: it edits itself. This could have some peculiar ramifications, indeed.
The mind distorts things
For the purpose of explaining how your mind distorts things, let’s say that in 2007, you embarrassed yourself at a party by calling your best friend “Daddy.”
A year later, in 2008, you’d remember this incident differently. Perhaps you’d add a little patch of urine to the equation. The following year, you might continue with the urine memory, but then forget that some girl you liked rolled her eyes at you. This would continue over the years, and in 2017, you’d remember how you called your best friend “Daddykins” and how everyone found it funny when you wet your pants and an octopus shook your hand.
Every time you remember, you add a detail that wasn’t there before and you lose a little detail, too. After enough time has passed, your memories become significantly distorted.
The same thing would likely happen to implanted ones, and eventually, they’d become so different that they’d bear little resemblance to the originals. You might be able to alleviate this with boosts of fresh, piping-hot memories delivered to your brain once a month, but since this technology isn’t even available yet, we can only speculate as to whether this would have the desired effect or not.
The memories you hold—or those you believe you’ve had—may very well be altered in some way. This, unfortunately, permits you to assemble an incident in which you were the victim when you weren’t, replay a scene so many times that you no longer recall what really occurred or mix a circumstance with something else that followed earlier.
Memories are the most cherished of items, but also the most brittle and the most misleading. And when the trigger dies, they’re forever expended.