Science fiction is fond of implanting false memories into people – ok, characters. They don’t do it to real people. It’s impossible to do that, right? Wrong, it’s very possible and we often do it to ourselves. False memories are insidious because you don’t know that you have them. We edit our memories every day. All we need is a suggestion that the real memory is not right and a nudge towards the false memory. We remember selectively. This is especially true when we don’t really want to remember an event the way it happened.
Another way to edit your memory is to talk about it with someone else who shares that experience. Often point of view is a factor. Couple A is walking in the park and sees Couple B. one of Couple A, call it A-1, sees Couple B embracing, while A-2 sees B-1 throttling B-2. Which view is correct? The police would need to know. In discussing what they saw, A-2 may argue that B-1 was choking B-2; A-1 would argue that they were embracing. Eventually, A-1 may begin to remember that couple B was embracing. After all, that’s more common a sight than murder by choking in public. But let’s say another person, C, managed to photograph the scene. C shows couple A the photograph and they realize that couple B were just standing there, talking, B-2 had its hands on B-1’s shoulders. Both A-1 and A-2 were wrong. They both interpreted what they saw, according to their own perceptions. Maybe A-2 had recently read a mystery involving death by strangulation. That would explain its reaction to couple B. A-1 saw them embracing by extrapolating the arm positions. That’s how we edit our memories.
That’s also why eye witness accounts of events vary so widely. We see an event from our own perspective and edit it according to our own experiences. It’s a fact that all the survivors of the Titanic left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat, according to their individual testimony. Were they lying? No, our perceptions can trick us. They all remembered leaving in the last lifeboat, because that’s the last they saw of the ship, close up. They were lucky to make it and they knew it, so their lifeboat became the last one to leave the ship — memory editing at its best.
Could an unscrupulous person deliberately alter the memory of another person? Maybe not as easily or as quickly as in science fiction, but it is something that could happen. It is possible, I think, but I also think that it would be more time and resource consuming than it would be worth – unless hypnosis was involved. A good hypnotist could edit a person’s memory, but what comes to my mind is the question of why. Why would anyone want to edit a single person’s memories? Getting the person to forget an event that they had witnessed, but that’s about all I could think of. Maybe you could use memory editing to convince someone they had seen something they hadn’t but you would have to be very good at it. People are fully capable of editing their memories, but how many would be as amenable to having it done – well you probably couldn’t do it if they were aware of the editing. It may not be practical in real life, but it does make for good science or crime fiction, wouldn’t it?