The Illusion of Memory: Exploring the Power and Deception of Our Past

Imagine waking up one day with memories of a life you never lived, or worse, finding out your most cherished memories were never real.

The Illusion of Memory: Exploring the Power and Deception of Our Past
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Memories are among those things that shape your life in ways you can’t really be sure of. They influence every decision you make. Who your friends are, where you work, what country you live in and, of course, who you do business with.

And a huge problem with memories is that most of them are not real. Indeed, it’s a significant problem in law enforcement circles that during interviews and interrogations. If the police officer is very persuasive, he can inadvertently cause the person being interviewed to develop memories that were not there before. And that happens not out of malice but often by mistake.

For example, you may have witnessed a crime. Now, in law enforcement, suspects are interrogated. Witnesses are interviewed. Since you are not a suspect, but a witness, you’ll be okay.

So you’re sitting there and they’re asking you what you remember. You’re going to tell them everything you remember first. Of course a lot of the information is not going to be there if you were in a state of shock. So what your mind is gonna do is fill in the blanks, and the way it fills in the blanks is it just makes up memories from thin air without you even realising it.

And you’d think that memories would be accurate because we have testimony. Someone has seen it with their own eyes, right?

But eyewitness accounts aren’t as reliable as you might think. And that’s a problem. If the police officer is very thorough, you might be asked the same questions over and over again, to make sure you’re not lying or leaving out details that might be crucial to the investigation.

So instead, the second time you’re asked, the focus will be on a different detail. And again, your brain will fill in the blanks. So where you couldn’t remember before, you now have false memories. And so you’re going to use those fake memories to create new fake memories, just like AI would do.

This is a problem, because if a testimony has been obtained by a police officer, and it can be proven that the witness has been influenced by the interviewer, then often the entire testimony is void, as it is unreliable.

Now let’s put this in another context, because we know that memories are powerful.

Memories aren’t just the images you see in your head when you relive your childhood. Memories come to you in every possible way, which includes every possible emotion that you might be experiencing. This includes whether you’re happy, whether you’re sad, whether you smelled something nice or something terrible at the time. Whatever sounds you’re listening to, if you’re listening to music, it will all be part of your memory.

What if in the future someone got to alter our memories?

It is a subject that has already been explored in science fiction. And like everything else in our society, science fiction will probably drive the implementation of these solutions. So let’s look at the Ghost in the Shell Arise: Border 1 - Ghost Pain.

In this anime, the protagonist, a young woman by the name of Motoko Kusanagi, is in charge of an investigation into the identity of a terrorist who has been causing a great deal of havoc.

She works for this secret organisation to raise money for her foster mother. But as she continues to investigate, she comes to this very dark realisation that the person she was sending money to never existed.

Not only did this person never exist, but Motoko had never been in the institution she recalled |from her childhood. Everything Motoko remembered had been planted. And it gets worse. The very room she had used as a hiding place, where she had sought refuge, turned out not to be an apartment at all. It was a room that had been vandalised by a madman. The false memories were affecting she thought she saw around her. They were filtering out of her reality and causing her to see things that weren’t even there at all.

But the concept of the manipulation of memory is not a new one.

While we can manipulate memory to some extent, and indeed it is not very difficult for hypnotists to do so, there are cases of even history being rewritten. You may recall the saying: “History is the writing of the victors”. And indeed you may find that history is written in such a way as to show that one side was wrong and the other side was right.

And, of course, we can check this by looking at how history turned out: the side that won was going to be seen as heroic. Statues would be erected in their honour. Whereas the whole scenario would be framed as rebellion or treason if they had lost. And that is how we can tell which side has won. It is in this context that we could then make the claim that political history is nothing more than a chronicle of conspiracies that have succeeded and those that have failed.

Now the context of manipulating history to one’s own advantage was well described in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the famous book by George Orwell. On one side were the eternal friends, who had always been friends and with whom there was an eternal alliance. And these friends were in need of help. On the other side, of course, there were the mortal enemies with whom there was perpetual war. And a day or two later the whole narrative would flip. Again and again and again. Whether the story was true or not didn’t matter, the constant shift from this to that was what was real, because that was what was going to confuse everyone.

So, to take this back to memory. What would your reaction be if tomorrow there was a pandemic of Alzheimer’s disease in the world? The cause is not important.

How would you feel if you could no longer remember who any of your family members were? How would you tell truth from fiction if you were just dropped in with a random group of people and all you knew was that these people were your family and they had always been your family and you had always been down there?

How would you have any certainty that the story you had been told was the true story? In fact, how would you even know to question it if there was no way of knowing that it was false? In films, because of the problem of erasure, characters sometimes have flashbacks. But what if there are no flashbacks? What if there never was and never will be one? Would you ever have doubts about who or what you are?

And even right here and now. Do you have any idea at all who you are?

Let’s think about this for a moment. From the day of your birth until the day you are 15 years old, most cells in your body will have regenerated. Except for the central core of the lense of the human eye, but that's the subject for another time.

Let’s take this further, every 15 years, your physical self is no longer you. By 30, by 45, by 60... every cell of you that was you, when you were 15 no longer exists. It died. It died many years ago. Indeed it may have died over a generation ago. Most of the cells in your body will not even remember that the other cells ever existed. But there is something within you that tells you that you once lived there. You carry memories from then and now.

So are you your memories? But they aren't real! So how do you know what is real? Everything you remember may have been fabricated.

How would you distinguish between something you watched on television and something that might have happened to you?

How would you know the difference between something you did when you were 15, and something you lied about often enough? Maybe you were afraid of getting caught, so you lied to everyone. By 25, you’d lied so often that you started believing it. How would that affect all that defines you?

And while you have the ability to do this to yourself to adapt to the world around you, what if someone else had the ability to erase your mind without you knowing and install new memories to tell you that you are not who you think you are, but someone else.

So where does this leave you? What can you do about it? For starters, prevent yourself from lying to yourself. One way to do this is to record your personal stories, by keeping a journal. Together with images, these may end up being your only link to your past self.

Some say that those who have forgotten their roots have forgotten themselves.
But forgetting that which stops you from living, is sometimes the wiser of choices.

Today, you got a glimpse into the lives of those that struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and those that struggle with schizzophrenia. If these thought have worried you, then I urge you to show some love to those around you that are struggling with this.

And remember, that you can never know what you will remember tomorrow. So given the choice, make it a beautiful one. And if you enjoy though-provoking content, then subscribe to our blog to join the conversation!