What if the ability to forget is a feature, not a bug?

Lately I have been watching/rewatching sci-fi movies, and as I one day watched both “Ghost in the shell” (the Hollywood version from 2017) and “Blade Runner” (the first film from 1982) I found an interesting parallel in how they both portray memory. Making me think of our relationship to memory today.

In the 2017 version of “Ghost in the shell” the main character “Major” is a cyborg, something she is aware of. The problem however is that she is unable to remember almost anything from her past and therefore feels in doubt of her identity, as well as disconnected from herself and the rest of the world. Her lack of memories are what sets her apart from the humans. This way of reasoning is even more clearly expressed in the 1995 animated version where Major in one line says “Man is an individual only because of his intangible memory and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind”. A similar theme is also found in Blade Runner. Here a young Harrison Ford chases synthetic humans known as replicants though a dystopian future Los Angeles. Replicants look like humans, and some replicants also believe they are human, due to the fact that they have memories. But these memories turn out to have been implanted in order to make the replicants mimic humans even more. Both of these movies could be understood as suggesting that memories are something that defines us as human. And if memory is a central part to being human, then it is interesting to take a brief look at how we today are understanding memory.

Even though scientific research is advancing, our basic understanding of how memory is encoded, stored, and retrieved in humans is limited. Still many of the projects being done today point towards a future where human memory has changed from an intractable mystery to something that can be engineered. Several ongoing projects utilize brain implants as ways to enhance and boost our memories, mainly focusing on people with memory related problems, such as Alzheimerrs and PTSD. But if memory-enhancing implants continue to evolve, potential applications could go far beyond people with traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s. Eventually, users could be those with age-related memory loss — which is to say, pretty much everyone who lives long enough. In parallel there are also a whole bunch of companies interested in developing Brain-Computer interfaces (BCI) that are keeping a close eye on the brain implants developments, as the technology potentially could let anyone with a BCI have perfect memory. Which makes these companies dream of a world where all our experiences could be recorded, and memories become videos we could rewatch and share.

As most of us think “perfect” memory is going to mean that we will never forget anything, other researchers are suggesting that forgetting is actually helping us. The University of Toronto professor Blake Richards argues that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, instead he compares it to a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions. He also points out that we have yet to find the limits of what the human brain can store, hence we already have the potential to remember everything. Still, the brain actually spends energy making us forget, so why does it do so if our brains aren’t running out of space? Richards argues that forgetting old information can make us more efficient, and keep us from generalizing too much from one piece of information. He says “brains probably have been shaped by evolution to only remember that stuff that is pertinent to our survival. So maybe not being able to remember how you know someone is a feature of our brains, not a bug.” Maybe it is not only memory that defines us as humans, potentially it is also the ability to forget?

References
Tears in Rain: The role of memories in Cyberpunk
The Importance Of Memory In Blade Runner
How Ghost in the Shell ducks the philosophical questions posed by a cyborg future
Memory Editing Technology Will Give Us Perfect Recall and Let Us Alter Memories at Will
Memory-boosting brain implants are in the works. Would you get one?
Are You Ready for Tech That Connects to Your Brain?
Are you forgetful? That’s just your brain erasing useless memories

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