False Memories & What It Means to be Human

Tam Le is the Regional Strategy Senior Manager for Carat APAC.

To paraphrase neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, allow me to describe a hypothetical situation that is both terrifying and likely to occur: implanting false memories for therapy. With the proliferation of VR, this seemingly sci-fi concept is quickly approaching reality.

5 – 7 minute read
10 minute existential reflection


We, as humans and as media professionals, have the ability to shape the future and create a world that we can come to terms with—one that is both virtual and real.

There are documented cases from the past few decades of therapists manipulating their patients’ memories in order to overcome psychological obstacles [1], but with the increasing quality and spread of virtual reality (VR), our ability to create realistic, false memories is greater than ever. “When you look at your brain under an fMRI, remembering and experiencing look very similar [2],” announced Google VR vice president Clay Bavor at Cannes this year, “You’ll be able to have an experience that’s so convincing, at times you won’t be able to tell whether you’re in virtual reality or real reality [3].”

With the increasing quality and spread of virtual reality (VR), our ability to create realistic, false memories is greater than ever.

 

Memory capture is currently one of the greater ambitions of VR; Bavor has experimented with creating a prototype camera for recording memories to replay in VR. “You can remember someone you love who might be far away or who you’ve lost,” he goes on to say, I’ve recorded…little fleeting moments: sitting with my grandmother in her home, having breakfast with my son. Here’s the thing: a few years from now, when my grandmother is gone, I’ll be able to sit with her. Twenty years from now, when my son is an adult, I’ll be able to put on some goggles and sit across the breakfast table from him as a little boy [2].”

“Twenty years from now, when my son is an adult, I’ll be able to put on some goggles and sit across the breakfast table from him as a little boy.”

-Google Virtual Reality Vice President Clay Bavor

 

Now what if those recorded memories were slightly altered?

What if we could replace your grandmother’s criticism of your wife with a compliment or insert a resolution to that fight you had with your son at the breakfast table? A reverse-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of sorts where instead of removing memories for therapeutic purposes, they are constructed or modified.

Etermal Sunshine.JPG

Our susceptibility to false memories and the effect they have on our subsequent actions have long been proven by scientists. In a study, researchers falsely suggested to half of their subjects that, in their childhoods, they became sick after eating spoiled peach yogurt. Two weeks later in a seemingly unrelated follow-up study that consisted of sampling various foods, those who were given the false memory ate about 25% less peach yogurt than the control group. This avoidance of peach yogurt was especially pronounced among the participants who now claimed that they could “remember” eating the spoiled yogurt as a child [1].

Similar to how we’ve always had the ability to get from point A to B, and cars just help get us to our destination faster, we’ve always had the ability to implant false memories into others, and now VR can help get us there faster.

 

Taking it one step further

But what if we were to take it one step further? What if we were to push the boundaries of ethics even more? Now this is where my thought experiment begins: what if we were to introduce brands?

coke

How many brands do you use out of familiarity or because of association with positive memories? Do you drink Coke because it tastes better than Pepsi or do you drink it because you grew up drinking it and just seeing a red can takes you back to hot afternoons at the pool and late night pizzas with friends? What are brands willing to pay for nostalgia?

I imagine that, like all current forms of therapy, implanting false memories through VR simulations will not come cheap. What if brands were to subsidize the cost of memory therapy through “sponsorships”? Today freemium services are a way of life. Consumers understand that in exchange for free music streaming service from Spotify, they will have to listen to sponsored ads. If they choose to pay for a Spotify Premium subscription, the ads will disappear. What if this model could be applied to VR memories?

What are brands willing to pay for nostalgia?

 

Why does this make you feel uncomfortable?

At this point, you are probably feeling thoroughly uncomfortable and possibly slightly disgusted by my suggestions. I know I was when I first conceived it. I think this is because the idea of implanting false memories, even with the aim of improving lives, messes with our belief of what it means to be human. Our identities are based on our memories and experiences, but what will it mean if those memories and experiences are false?

Our identities are based on our memories and experiences, but what will it mean if those memories and experiences are false?

But then this brings us into the philosophical debate of what is true and what is false. Are all non-physical experiences not considered “real”? Are the emotions you’ve felt while reading novels not “real” because the story is fictional? Are the lessons you’ve learnt from watching movies not “real” because you did not physically experience them? Are all our digital memories imaginary? Does reading a hurtful comment about ourselves online hurt any less because it was not to our face, but on Facebook? Or does this feeling of uneasiness come from the deceit of a VR experience passing off as a memory of a physical encounter?

Are all non-physical experiences not considered “real”?

As we move into even more non-physical forms of communication and increased exposure to VR, we are going to have more memories of non-physical experiences—there’s no denying this. And regardless of whether we believe those to be true or false, we will retain memories of them and they will impact our future beliefs, attitudes, and actions. After all, our reality is merely our own personal construct of it. The question is now, how will society shift once everyone is walking around with heads full of fictional memories?

We are going to have more memories of non-physical experiences—there’s no denying this.

 

The scenarios written here raise a lot of questions, one of them being: why did I write this?  I created this thought experiment because this is an impending situation and we should consider the ethics of it before it is realized. VR is here. It will bring about unimaginable cases, the consequences of which we cannot predict from where we stand today. But we can begin to anticipate some emerging circumstances based on what we are already witnessing.

It has been proven that VR can affect or manipulate people’s experiences for days or years after they remove their headsets [4]. VR is already being tested to alleviate pain, phobia and depression. Memory alteration for therapeutic purposes already exists. So do brand sponsorships, integrations and product placement. It is only a matter of time before these worlds merge, and before that happens, we, as humans and as media professionals, have the ability to shape the future and create a world that we can come to terms with—one that is both virtual and real.

keanu-reeves

 

  1. Would it be ethical to implant false memories in therapy | BBC http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161003-would-it-be-ethical-to-implant-false-memories-in-therapy
  2. Is virtual reality for our own memories such a great idea | The Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/05/is-virtual-reality-for-our-own-memories-really-such-a-great-idea.html
  3. Google at Cannes 2016- Adventures in virtual reality | JWT http://www.jwt.com/blog/opinion/google-at-cannes-2016-adventures-in-virtual-reality
  4. Misled Memories | Mashable http://mashable.com/2014/06/26/virtual-reality-memory

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