How would beliefs be different if humanity started with perfect memory?

By start point, I mean the Stone Age, or whenever Homo sapiens sapiens became distinct from other humanoids.

By perfect memory, I mean that each person has perfect recall about what happened to them, not that everyone knows what happened to everyone.

So, lying is totally possible, as long as you make sure that you can't get caught, and alibis only work if it's planned really, really well, and you have co-conspirators.


closed as too broad by bilbo_pingouin, James, Brythan, TrEs-2b, bowlturner Jan 14 '16 at 18:27

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, initially, I wanted to ask perfect memory's effects on humanity in general, but avoided it as I thought it'd be too broad, but given the answers, I'm gonna change it... $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 14 '16 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ This is completely unpredictable. Anything everyone tells you, you will remember. Since we are basically a social species in the time frame you mention, knowledge would spread exponentially, and I would not be typing this answer into an old-fashioned cloud server, but thinking it into intergalactic storage directly. Voting to close as too broad. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Jan 14 '16 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen - So, revert back to belief-focus then? $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 14 '16 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ When you start playing with "everythings," it gets tricky. What do you mean by "everything that happened to them?" Are we drawing some imaginary system barrier around each person and stating "no information that crosses this line is forgotten?" Is the line above or below the skin? Are we only thinking of information that reaches the sensory nerurons? Only information that reaches the brain? One of the challenges with playing with an "everything" is that the smallest details start to become more important than we are used to, and begin to dominate the behavior. Details start to matter. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 17 '16 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon - 'Everything', meaning 'everything that is consciously registered', and with the caveat that they aren't incapacitated by that, so no automatic remembering of all roses every smelt just from smelling one rose... unless they want to. $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 17 '16 at 18:08

I don't think that much would change, except lying would be infinitely harder, and people would literally have events that embarrassed them for life. While you may remember a lot of things that would improve your life, no-one would ever forget a little lie you told, or that really embarrassing moment. This might make it so that making mistakes or doing dumb things were more easily forgiven at first, then more severely looked down upon later.

Advances in all fields would happen with greater speed, and history would be more detailed. For example, in chemistry you find the molar masses of different compounds. I would only have to find the molar mass for, let's say, glucose, one time. Then if I ever have glucose in a chemical reaction, my life just got one equation simpler.

As for religous beliefs, people would be held to a higher moral standard, after all, you didn't forget anything. You knew perfectly well what you were doing. Forgiveness might also be more difficult, after all, you remember everything that guy did wrong to you.


Birth rate would plummet, because if women remembered what it was like to go through labor in detail, they would never do it a second time. :-)

Workers would become more efficient. I've had plenty of times that I've solved a problem once, and then come across the same problem months or years later and I had to figure out how to solve it all over again.

Criminal justice would be more just and reliable. I suppose it would still be possible for a witness to mis-identify a suspect if two people looked a lot alike, especially if it was difficult to see for some reason. But you wouldn't have the phenomenon of "I only saw him for a second, I'm not sure what he looked like". You wouldn't have the whole, "I wasn't sure at first, but the police said they were sure he was the guilty person and then I remembered, yup, that's him". Etc.

I'm not sure if lying in general would be harder or easier. On the one hand, a catch to lying is often keeping your story straight: it's a lot easier to remember what really happened than to remember a fake story that you made up. So if you had a perfect memory, that problem would go away. On the other hand, other people would remember all sorts of details that could poke holes in your story. "But wait, last November you had a piece of green thread on your shirt that looks just like the thread on Mary's sofa ..."

I'm not sure what would happen to personal relationships. On the one hand, people would remember every trivial offense. On the other hand, they'd remember every little nice thing you did for them. I suspect the end result is that our feelings about others would become more extreme: we'd like people we like more and dislike people we dislike more. But in some cases it could reverse an opinion: One really good deed would be less likely to outweigh a hundred tiny slights, and vice versa.

Maybe decision-making would be more rational, as people wouldn't forget all the relevant facts. Or maybe it would make little difference, as -- unless you're assuming other changes to the human mind -- people would still dismiss or explain away facts that are inconsistent with what they want to believe, even though they remember them perfectly.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm... Wouldn't the pain be an incentive for evolution to evolve a more comfortable pregnancy? Yes, very off-topic, but interesting? $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 14 '16 at 12:34

When you say perfect memory, do you mean that everything that ever happened to a human was somehow recorded somewhere with 100% accuracy and understand-ability? because if so, then I honestly don't think it'd be all that different. It's the same reason that no one knows everything, even though pretty much anyone who lives in a first-world country can have access to the internet, the compendium of all recorded human knowledge. It's just too much information to go through. Also, would having a minute-by-minute recording of a person's life actually help you understand them any better? That's essentially what social media is providing you with right now. the only difference I can think of would be that crime would see a sharp decline, as the authorities could just look up to see whether or not the crime was committed by such-and-such a person. Same thing goes for proving or disproving that awesome story about your friend's cousin, which it turns out was just a guy on a moped instead of a whole biker gang.

Either way, I think that having perfect, infallible, objective truth might just make things a little less eventful, but not actually foster understanding of fellow humans on a deeper level, if that's what you're looking for.

  • $\begingroup$ No, I don't think that's what I mean. Look at my updated question please? $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 14 '16 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ Well, then I don't really think things would change at all. If everyone had perfect recall, but could still lie about it, then it'd still be impossible to tell if someone was saying what actually happened, or lying. Someone could easily lie about seeing a talking, burning bush, and have that just be passed down over the years, same as ever. Maybe average mental health would decline, given that if they do something stupid, or see something horrible, then they're going to remember it being exactly as embarrassing or terrifying as it always was. $\endgroup$ – possiblySerious Jan 14 '16 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Did you really have to infer that the bible lies while defending your claim? That's just kind of sad. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 14 '16 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't trying to discredit any specific religion, I just used the first example I could think of. With prefect recall, it doesn't make it any easier or harder to discredit anything anyone says, leaving it all to personal opinion as to what happened. I was just trying to apply that to belief, as per the question. $\endgroup$ – possiblySerious Jan 14 '16 at 11:47

Religions rarely appear because someone lied. More often they are results of honest try to understand the world connected with some kind of mystic revelation. The mystic revelation might be connected to dreams, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, but they might be as well realizations of some profound truths which occur to the "prophet" in such a groundbreaking way that he or she decides that it had to come from something supernatural.

In the theravadin tradition, Buddha Gautama decided to sit in meditation under a tree until he reaches Enlightenment. When he did it was to him as if his eyes opened again and now he saw the whole world in a different way. Before that moment he was a vedic ascetic (it would be anachronistic to say that he was a Hindu). After, his understanding of the world changed so much that he built his whole system from anew and was even afraid that people would not be able to understand it. If he was right or wrong is a different question, but it seems that he was honest when he taught it. If people had perfect memory it would not prevent the spread of Buddhism. In fact, it is claimed that one of the disciples of Gautama had perfect memory and he was crucial in preserving his teachings after Gautama passed away.

Mani was the founder of now extinct religion called Manichaeism (surprise, surprise). He lived in the III century in the second Persian Empire (nowadays Iraq and Iran) and spoke Syriac. He connected beliefs from a wide range of gnostic sects which made something of a continuum between Christianity and Zoroastrianism, added a bit of early Buddhism to it and wrote a book full of cosmic beings and complex theology. He claimed to be inspired by his "heavenly twin", a being which appeared to him. It sounds much more like a lie than what Buddha did, but liars usually has a purpose in their lying. I didn't look like Mani had a purpose. He made a bold move and presented the book to his king, Shapur I, who was not impressed but nevertheless allowed Mani to preach his religion. But the king's son, Bahram, was not so tolerant and Mani died in his prison in a very gore way some years later. I would say Mani was guy who made something up but then started to believe it himself. If by "perfect memory" you mean that he would not fall into delusion then there would probably was no Manichaeism (which is extinct anyway and its greatest legacy is how it influenced Red Turbans rebellion in medieval China, as well as some small gnostic sects in Middle East). But maybe Mani would have been remembered as the first author of epic fantasy ;)

On the other hand there are guys like Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Bahai Faith or Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism. We can't know for sure how true are stories about their revelations and how much they just made up, but it seems that they both worked for common good, and not just their own profit. Especially Bahá'u'lláh was a very peaceful person, a poet, who believed that we can all accept our differences and live in peace (after all, all prophets preached the same religion, didn't they? ;) ). In effect, he spent a large part of his life in prison, because Islamic authorities didn't really agree with him. Guru Nanak was (I think) more successful. He lived in the XV-XVI century in what is now Pakistan and he claimed to have a revelation from God which connected Islam and Hinduism. Pretty convenient for someone living in the territory where these both cultures mixed and clashed all the time, no? ;) I always wonder why God didn't reveal herself to some indigenous peoples in, let's say, Borneo and gave them the same message as to Arabs, for example. That would solve a lot of problems about which religion is true. But anyway, even if Nanak made that up, his teachings were an attempt to improve relations between Muslims and Hindus. For sure he didn't make up stories about the past, so perfect memory wouldn't change anything.

I know I'm not answering your question directly - my point is, in my opinion perfect memory would not change much in people's beliefs, because beliefs are rarely based on lies which could be exposed.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, initially, I wanted to ask perfect memory's effects on humanity in general, but avoided it as I thought it'd be too broad, but given the answers, I'm gonna change the title... $\endgroup$ – Malady Jan 14 '16 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ In that case, have you seen "The Invention of Lying"? imdb.com/title/tt1058017 It's based on a different premise - that everyone is somehow mentally "handicapped" and unable to tell nor understand a lie. $\endgroup$ – makingthematrix Jan 14 '16 at 14:45

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