Imagine a world where we stored our memories in the hair on our heads rather than in our brains. What social and cultural consequences could arise from this?

Some details about the memory storage: (sorry this got a bit long)

This is long term rather than short term memory. Short term memory is still in the brain. It takes about a day from an event happening to the particular section of a hair strand storing that memory to grow from the scalp.

Facts/skills can still be stored in the brain, so if you shaved your head you would still be able to function as a person (somewhat), you just wouldn't be able to remember any events from your past. For example if you watched a film you might store facts about the plot in your brain, but to picture a character in your head you would need your hair - or to replay visuals/sound from a particular scene you would need your hair. As another example, if you were an artist thinking up an idea for a painting then this image would be stored in your brain, but if parts of it were based directly on memories then the image in your brain may deteriorate if you lost those memories.

If you concentrate on a memory then you can locate roughly where in your hair it is stored. Also, touching a particular section of a hair strand stimulates the memory stored there, so with a bit of work it's possible to precisely locate a particular memory.

Memories are created and fade at the same rate as in the real world.

The positioning of memories in the hair has some pattern, but it's not highly logical (apart from older memories being further down a hair strand) and you don't control it.

Memories occasionally end up in the moustache/beard, but not many of them - unless you have a certain disorder causing lots of memories to be stored in facial hair.

I'd prefer it if you considered consequences in a more old fashioned society, one in which little rigorous scientific study has been done about memory storage - think Europe ~200 years ago.


closed as too broad by sphennings, Azuaron, Thucydides, L.Dutch, Vylix Aug 22 '17 at 2:43

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  • $\begingroup$ Are the events of your past not facts? I'm having trouble understanding what distinguishes a hair-memory and brain-memory. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 21 '17 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Also, don't be surprised if this gets put on hold. Questions asking for social/cultural responses to some stimulus or change are frequently regarded as being too broad to cover appropriately. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 21 '17 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ Getting your head scratched where the good memories are would be amazing. I have a new idea for a, um, service oriented business, in your world. $\endgroup$ – Michael Aug 21 '17 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ Normal hair is not living tissue, it is a non-living structure. The "hair" of those people is something else entirely; therefore, those people are not humans. Everything about them will be different, so your task is to make up and describe a completely different society and culture; if some aspects of it are similar to ours then this must have a reasonable explanation. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 21 '17 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ "You look different. Did you get a haircut?" "No. At least, I don't remember getting a haircut." $\endgroup$ – EightyEighty Aug 21 '17 at 21:42

I'm not sure this is a very sensible proposal, but I don't mind working with it:

The normal process of growing hair is that it starts growing outward from the scalp, reaches a natural length (for the individual) and then grows out, i.e. is lost.

Implicitly, as hair is lost so will the memories contained in the hair.

This assumes that for the memories to be effective that they must maintain living contact with the person. Is this true? Can discarded or cut hair be retained and still usefully function as memory - can memories be retrieved from hair cut or naturally shed?

Hairdressing becomes a bit problemmatic. If cut hair means lost memories (and implicitly from your description it cannot be easily determined what those memories may be), it is difficult to see that any haircutting would be desirable, with the possible exception of removing unwanted memories - but even then, if the unwanted memories were more recent than older treasured memories stored in the hair, would you want a drastic solution like that.

On the other hand, taking into account that hair would most desirably be grown to its fullest length in order to retain most memory, there would be a demand for hairstyles that supported a growing quantity of hair and, possibly, techniques which would protect against hairshed, such as taking the weight of the hair from the scalp and supporting it otherwise - very elaborate hairstyles could be imagined, especially if the wishes to access some favorite memories located in particular strands of hair were taken into account.

Although you say that facts and skills would still be stored in the brain, much of the context for those facts and skills would be held in memory, as would experience in using those facts and skills, so that shaving the head would act something like a factory reset - the skills would be there, but the experience built upon them would not.

The process of haircutting, or shaving would, therefore, be something to be avoided, since it would be effectively disabling, not of skills, but of the memory and experience derived from using those skills.

Some peoples hair may never grow particularly long anyway, so they are particularly disadvantaged - learning skills, but never able to retain the experience of using them.

So we have a society where elaborate and large hairstyles convey status and achievement (remembered), and short or shorn hair effectively conveys loss of achievement (certainly for the individual), with intermediates but with a social pressure to be seen to have more elaborate hairstyling. This in turn is likely to generate a demand for hair extensions and a, possibly illicit, market for real hair taken from unfortunate victims.

I can foresee muggers administering very severe haircuts for profit.

  • $\begingroup$ You're correct that hair must be in living contact for memories to be effective. Once hair is cut you cannot retrieve the memories. $\endgroup$ – S. Shepherd Aug 21 '17 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ That comment about muggers is probably the single most important sentence in the answer. Forcibly shaving a person's head means they're no longer a witness to any crime. Willingly shaving your head means you're totally ignorant of any crime you committed. Society's reaction to these events would quickly turn willingly getting your hair cut at all into an intolerable crime and forcibly cutting anyone's hair by any length into a guaranteed life sentence. Stylish long hair design would become a booming industry alongside protecting it. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 22 '17 at 2:05

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