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How would society function if people had the ability to easily erase existing memories or imprint false memories?

Let's say that this is fairly easy to do, but requires that the person is able to touch the victim. It is common for criminals to do it for scams or for concealing other crimes, and spies try to do it for political reasons, though it is strictly illegal even for government agents.

This is a well-known and easily-understood problem. Law enforcement can determine if it is happening or has happened to someone (though they can't tell if a person did it to themself), and people often go to prison for it.

This is a world with some magic, but the memory-imprinting itself may be magical or technological (I haven't decided yet).

How do governments and law enforcement approach this problem? How do ordinary people deal with it?

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    $\begingroup$ Can they also read memories? Seems like you'd have to know they have a memory to erase it. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Sep 3 '15 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Or can they just erase, for example, the last 24 hours without knowing what that person did during that time. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Sep 3 '15 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ Something like this maybe? Or this one. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Sep 3 '15 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ How long would it stay "strictly illegal" for government cases? Soon it is "except for terrorism cases". Then investigation of capital crimes. And so on. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Sep 4 '15 at 5:37
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. I was thinking the same thing. This can be part of an answer. The reason I mentioned that it was "strictly illegal" for law enforcement, was so people wouldn't suggest for them to use it on common crooks or in public settings. $\endgroup$ – acbabis Sep 4 '15 at 16:46
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Unless something is done to make memories reliable, this will result into a complete dystopia

Let's imagine that for a moment, anybody could alter your memories simply by touching you. Shake your friend's hand as a greeting and you suddenly remember you still owe him 100 dollar for that time he bailed you out of jail because you launched a bunny into space and got fined for it.

You're still not certain why you ever thought launching a bunny was a good idea, but hey, you clearly remember doing it.

Now this might sound silly, but you can see where I am going with this. Allowing anybody to touch you would be opening yourself to basically anything they could possibly want.

That leaves two possible solutions for dealing with the problem:

Prevent people from touching you

One solution would be to simply prevent anybody from ever touching you. People would go around in hazmat suits to prevent their memories from being tampered with, only coming out with their closest friends and family who they absolutely trust. Society as a whole might have a difficult time advancing quickly when everybody is in bulky outfits that restrict your movement a lot, but the alternative is that anybody could be turned into a terrorist with nothing more than a touch.

Don't use the human memory

If the human memory is that easily manipulated, people are not going to be able to trust their own memory, ever. You have a world with magic, you might also have advanced technology, the obvious solution would be to simply stop storing your memories in your brain and instead use something else. Upload them into the Cloud, store them in a computer chip, a magical repository, whatever.

Simply stop using your easily fooled human brain and instead store all memories in something else.

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  • $\begingroup$ Assuming you mean skin-to-skin contact, then society would mandate wearing of gloves. And possibly ban skirts? $\endgroup$ – Frezak Sep 5 '15 at 11:22
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That’s a great analogy for how human memory isn’t very reliable now, and you might want to focus on the “can’t tell if you did it to yourself” exception, because all of us actually do this to our own memories all the time, on top of our own biases when we tell our stories to others. Yet we accept eyewitness testimony as evidence. Maybe the inspiring story that motivates a character to succeed is a noble lie he forced himself to believe because he couldn’t live with the truth? There’s a gambit where two people agree on a story and then make themselves believe it, so nobody can ever find out what really happened instead? Instead of wiping their victims, people force them to do it to themselves—can this be faked?—so it can’t be detected? If the authorities can tell who altered someone’s memories, but not how, what happens if some parents say they erased a run-of-the-mill scary memory, but someone else accuses them of covering up abuse? A scheme where someone who realizes they’ve had some memory altered by someone else implants a memory that they know will look as if the other person did something very unethical?

The penal rehabilitation system almost certainly makes use of this, and it seems likely to me that many rape victims would choose not to remember the traumatic details instead of prosecuting, for example. That probably leads to a world where there’s less pressure on the system to change.

The direction I’d gently suggest developing it is: this isn’t really so different. I mean, what would society be like if humans could kill each other or even themselves through physical contact, maybe by tightly constricting the neck or with a tool such as a knife? That’s a world where everybody would be constantly afraid of each other, avoiding any kind of contact with other human beings all the time, right? To ask important questions, they’d go to websites. Well, you’re asking what would happen in a world where even sincere recollections can’t be trusted. At first, it looks as if the reason for that is this memory-altering magic. There’s a way out, though: we can detect that magic, the reason for all our uncertainty, and get the reliable Truth we wished for. But is it ever that simple?

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Well, the obvious solution is to write down as much as possible. I guess everyone without exception would write a diary. Also, people may make photos wherever they are. So, basically people would do everything we already do to help our memories, except that they'd do it in excess.

In addition, of course we wouldn't let anyone touch us whom we don't trust. People would probably have a quite conservative treatment of sexuality. Prostitution would be basically non-existent because neither side would know if the other side wouldn't implant false memories concerning the price (if not worse) during the act.

This possibility of changing memories would certainly of big interest to intelligence agencies. On one hand, they are interested that the opposing agencies don't mess with their agent's memories, on the other hand they are interested in messing with their opponent agents' memories. Especially the memory about for whom those agents actually work would be a prime target, as if the agent believes he's working for you and is in that other agency undercover, he'll tell you whatever secrets of the opponents you want to hear. Afterwards, they again change the memory so that the agent no longer remembers the incident (and possibly even no longer remembers that he worked for an agency at all).

Note however that not every use of that capability needs to be bad. Imagine if the tedious learning of facts could be replaced by the teacher just touching you and implanting those facts into your memory. If it is done by technology, you might even have "tinned knowledge" which you can buy and transfer without a second person being directly involved; such tinned knowledge could be government-checked for false memories, and would provide more safety than a teacher who might have other goals besides knowledge transfer (but then, if you don't trust the government you'll probably not want to use tinned knowledge, as you never know what government manipulation you'll load into your brain that way).

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  • $\begingroup$ You could use it on your own agents too. Before a mission remove all memories about who they are and who they are working for and then return them after the mission. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 6 '15 at 17:48
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Memories can be preserved by sharing it among your friends and family. "False memories" can also be described as "arbitrary memories" which means that any memory you choose, true or false, can be implanted in someone else and thus preserved. To detect changes to those memories, some kind of checksum will need to be introduced. (I have no idea how you would implement such a thing.)

Society will work to prevent malicious manipulation, just as it does now. Scammers and con men are found and punished by law enforcement. Advanced techniques will develop for determining when and where a person had their memories altered. A poetic justice would be to have perpetrators of memory crime be subject to memory wiping or memory alteration of cherished memories or... The memories that compel them to crime.

Individuals will take measures such as spreading important memories among friends and family (with their permission, of course). Instead of keeping a special memory in just a single person, spread that memory around to other people. In real life, we do this with our memories already by sharing on social media and old school printed photos.

There may even be a market for "memory keepers", individuals who make it their job to retain other people's memories for a fee, much like a bank will store a person's money.

Computer Analog

This kind of problem exists for computers and has for a long time. A file (or memory) can be arbitrarily deleted or modified by any number of "attacks" such as normal malicious human attacks, degradation of storage media, errors in writing, errors in reading and so on. Various approaches have been implemented to solve this problem. From a file system perspective, ZFS is an example of a memory storage system that rigorously checks for and corrects file corruption errors. For failures across multiple storage devices (or the brains of friends/family as noted elsewhere in this answer) there is the RAID arrays that store data across multiple devices. Thus, if a part of the memory is changed/deleted then it can be detected or recovered from.

But these computer analogs depend on the kind of computational rigor that only computers can provide. Human brains and minds do not have such rigor so the comparison can only go so far.

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  • $\begingroup$ This could get very weird if you take it to the extreme of 'everyone shares all their memories' The human race would end up as a sort of slow-propagating hivemind... I like it! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Sep 4 '15 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really see how this would be a viable solution. Sure, you can share a memory with 100 different people. Then people start messing with the memory and you suddenly have 50 different versions, then what? Now you have no idea which one of the memories is the correct one. $\endgroup$ – Theik Sep 4 '15 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Theik, if you share a single memory with 100 people, certainly some amount of change will be introduced. A way would need to be found to detect these changes...but as noted in my edit, calculating checksums on human memories would be problematic. $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 4 '15 at 16:13
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How do ordinary people deal with it?

In this society, touching in general is probably prevented as much as possible. Your memories are a major part of what makes you who you are, so it seems likely that you would protect that nearly as much as you'd protect your life in general.

How do governments and law enforcement approach this problem?

Consider a lie detector test which is 100% sure to work and provide truthful (as the accused remembers it) information. That is what law enforcement may be able to do with this power if they suspect someone is withholding information. Just plant some memories that the police are completely trustworthy(or however elaborate it needs to be to get the truth out) and delete them later. I think its most acceptable that this would require permission from the accused, but it would be incredibly suspect if someone would not do it. This would be most important in theft, and robbery. (You need to remember about the money to make any use of it)

Having no memory of the time over the crime becomes a liability for anyone who is accused because they don't know their own defense very well, but it would still be possible to prove that somebody committed a crime without unreasonable doubt. Essentially, every accused person will be claiming innocence, and possibly even think they are innocent - even the person who actually did it, which is only slightly different from reality. This makes police work a little less about reading people and little more about the cold hard facts.

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    $\begingroup$ "Just plant some memories that the police are completely trustworthy and delete them later." But the lie-detector will also be completely unreliable as the "truth" you are speaking may simply be an implanted memory! $\endgroup$ – colmde Sep 4 '15 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde It would be difficult to implant memories in a way which doesn't disconnect from other memories. The point is, they could get full cooperation with someone to see if anything doesn't add up. "Over the time of the murder, I went to the store, but I don't remember why and I didn't buy anything" or "Over the time of the murder I went to the store and bought a new [thing]. I didn't need a new one so I don't know why I did that." - Like any alibi today, they will have to be checked and verified. This is much more than what they get to work with today. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Sep 4 '15 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble One way to make a false memory that isn't disconnected, is to implant a memory that the prosecutor just now offered a very favorable plea deal ("show us where the body is and you get 1 year"). With a vivid memory of signing it, a lot of people won't ask to actually see the papers again. Once they realize they spilled the beans, they'll willingly (and actually) sign a less favorable deal. The only thing left would be to implant a memory that police found the information through detective work. Once people figure this out, people wouldn't trust police to administer lie detectors. $\endgroup$ – acbabis Sep 4 '15 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @acbabis You may have misunderstood - I was saying if the accused person had an accomplice implant memories so that they did not know where the body was - in the accused person's mind they had gone to the store. (sleeping at home would be a better lie, but is still verifiable) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Sep 4 '15 at 18:35
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I want to stress an important point about your question.

It is actually possible to implant false memory, and it is fairly easy.

Of course it is not as easy as just handshaking, but still...

Research have been made and the result are creepy. I advise you this wikipedia article, particularly the part "Legal case".

Basically the idea is that a man was accused of multiple sexual assaults. At first he was denying the whole, arguing he did not recall anything. After a while, he started to remember.

A psychologist make the following experiment : he invented a case of sexual assault by the man, and ask him about it. After a while the man could "remember" it very precisely.

(note that it does not make him innocent, it just proves that you can not trust a confession)

I also advise the lecture of this other article about the misinformation effect.

The big difference with your scenario are :

  • Most people are not aware of the possibility
  • For what I know, it is not a crime (since most of the time it was not done on purpose)

However, the most probable reaction of the population is no reaction. If you do a more general parallel with manipulation (by publicity for example), it becomes fairly clear : you can prove that manipulation works, most people are convinced that it works, but still everybody think it will only affect others. Most people will probably just ignore the fact their memories could be altered.

It could perhaps change if the educational system heavily adapts to it and starts to teach people that the risk is real and have to be taken in account (other answers are good about how to do it).

Or the government will just erase the memory of the possibility of doing it in everybody.

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