What If We Exchange Memories
If you could copy and paste someone else’s memories into your mind, which would you pick? Happy memories? Sad memories? Memories which imbibe you with new and exciting skills? Each would have their benefits and yet would have drawbacks in kind.
Could new memories change your personality, change the world, or even expose your own dark secrets? Let’s find out as we ask what would happen if you downloaded someone else’s memories into your own brain.
One thing you could do is change your personality. The way you act is governed by the chemicals in your brain and the events you’ve experienced. We know that we can influence the former by messing with your grey matter’s chemical makeup but could adding new memories fundamentally change who you are as a person? If it could, the way to do this would be to edit your explicit memory – a form of long-term memory and not an archive of your dirtiest ever fantasies.
Explicit memory requires conscious thought, so if you need to recall who is coming to dinner tonight, what they’re 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 absorb the memories of someone else today, this may change how you act tomorrow. If you wanted to make someone more confident, you could do this by adding memories of someone else overcoming adversity. However, this could take a dark turn since in giving a person negative memories, you can create a new fear in them and once a person is scared, they are yours to control.
You could also improve yourself. The opposite of explicit memory is implicit memory and this type controls your subconscious movements: everything from walking to speaking to driving. Each of these is governed by the memories you gained while learning to do them. If you could download these memories, 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 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 where skill sets are bought and sold, with Spanish horticulture and erotic breakdancing all able to be learned in an afternoon. Could the brain cope with this many memories flooding in at once? How far can you push the brain before you overload and confuse the fragile human mind?
If your memories become confused and the mind becomes over-saturated, you could start weaving baskets when you’re trying to make love and if someone asks you to speak in French, the folk music lessons you downloaded on the same day may 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 can’t just transfer your memories and seamlessly give someone with the same capability as you without them having the same physical aptitude required. 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 is hope that this changes by the time we develop a memory transplant machine, but even then, there could be gaps in our knowledge. How could we solve that?
Another form of memory is semantic memory. It’s another type of conscious explicit memory which helps you retain facts and information, with these memories 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 revolutionise 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 had never died, at least in regards to knowledge; as with skills, 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.
This brings us to the fourth possible use of transplanting memories – editing your view of the past. 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 them once they’re implanted in your mind? 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: your memories are more like a lifelong game of Chinese Whispers. Imagine ten versions of you with each one taken from a different year over the past decade.
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 would 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 remember how you called your best friend Daddykins and everyone found it funny when you wet your pants and that 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, your memories become significantly distorted. The same should happen to implanted ones and eventually they’d be so different and bear little resemblance to the originals you may be able to alleviate this with boosts of fresh piping-hot memories delivered 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.