What If We Didn't Have Memory? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We rely on memory every single day of our lives. But, in this video, Unveiled imagines how different the world would be if human beings couldn't remember anything... if the hippocampus just didn't exist!

What If We Didn’t Have Memory?

Memory is a complex process requiring the whole brain to work, and we rely on it for essentially everything. Understanding the world around us, what things are, how to interact with people, and the entire process of learning any type of new information; it all relies on our ability to remember. But what kind of a life would you lead if this was taken away?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if we didn’t have memory?

While many of the human brain’s processes are still a mystery to us, we think the part of the brain most responsible for recollection is the hippocampus. Humans have two hippocampi intricately linked with the temporal lobe. The hippocampi are among the first parts of the brain to suffer damage when somebody has Alzheimer’s, and they deteriorate in most other types of dementia as well. When lobectomies are performed and parts or all of the hippocampi are removed – a procedure sometimes done to alleviate severe epilepsy – patients can suffer memory loss as a result. For that reason, they’re only performed as a last resort when other treatments haven’t worked.

There are many conditions that result in memory loss that don’t have clearly identifiable causes, however. The most famous memory condition is amnesia, which has two varieties: retrograde and anterograde. Retrograde amnesia is where you can’t remember anything in your past, while anterograde amnesia is where you’re incapable of forming new memories. One famous case study of someone suffering both types of amnesia at once is that of Clive Wearing, a man who has been the subject of many books, documentaries, and studies. Every day, when Wearing wakes up, it feels like the first time he’s ever woken up. It all dates back to a bout of encephalitis, which is severe brain inflammation, which he suffered in 1985. But one of the most incredible things about Clive Wearing’s case is that he’s a composer who hasn’t lost his knack for music nor his ability to play the piano. This is because humans also possess both declarative and procedural memory; the former is active recollection, like remembering facts for a test, and the latter (or one form of the latter) is sometimes called “muscle memory”. Due to how and where his encephalitis did and didn’t take hold, Wearing’s procedural memory with respect to his piano playing didn’t disappear.

Another obscure memory condition is Transient Epileptic Amnesia, which is when someone experiences a seizure, but could appear totally unchanged to everybody else around them - as though nothing untoward was happening. They’re able to carry on with whatever they’re doing, business as usual, because of their procedural memory kicking in; and often a mysterious “gap in their memory” reported afterwards is the only sign that they’d even had a seizure at all. Much more recently, the condition Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory has also surfaced, where people cannot recall the details of events, despite knowing that they happened. One prominent example is that of Susie McKinnon, who knows she attended a family wedding, but she can’t remember anything that actually happened during it. It’s the same with most other experiences in her life. Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory has flown under the radar until now because people with it generally manage to live safe, normal lives. In fact, many with SDAM may not even realize that they have the condition at all. But it’s no less impactful to their life experience.

Of course, there are also plenty of things humans need to do that we don’t have to consciously “remember” to do, like breathing, blinking and digesting food. These are automatic responses regulated by the brain, but more to do with the body’s chemical balance and with simply keeping us alive. For today’s question, “losing memory” doesn’t equate to losing these functions. We wouldn’t all spontaneously die on the spot; we’d still be able to breathe and think. Even in Clive Wearing’s exceptional situation, he still had a short-term memory for his thoughts that could last up to thirty seconds. If all humans lost memory, then, we would still have our base desires to eat, drink and sleep but wouldn’t be able to cook our food, for example. Even were we to find a recipe to follow and an ingredients list, preparing any kind of meal would be at best very difficult but for the most part impossible. Without the prior knowledge to filter most water sources before we can drink from them, or that eating raw meat is often dangerous, or even readily understanding how to build a fire, even the seemingly simple task of sustaining ourselves would be fraught with problems. Cast similar problems over every other aspect of life, and the world would be as though everybody alive was living with very late-stage dementia, only with nobody that wasn’t affected left to take care of everyone who was. Natural instincts to protect and shelter ourselves would still apply, but before long humans would surely be doomed; unable to look after ourselves but also our children, causing future generations to dwindle and die out.

For an even more extreme outlook, if we didn’t all miraculously lose our ability to remember all at once, but rather we’d never developed such detailed memory in the first place, we probably wouldn’t have evolved to be humans at all. We simply wouldn’t have had the brain capacity or intelligence to have accomplished everything we have done to this point - taking a totally different place in the animal kingdom. And experiments carried out to examine the memories of other animals haven’t always drawn great results. A 2014 study saw various animals presented with pictures of colored shapes, then prompted to remember the same shape from another selection (after a delay). Overall, the study found that animals have, on average, 27-second memories, with chimpanzees performing especially (perhaps surprisingly) poorly with only 20-seconds worth of memory.

Dogs also perform poorly at some memory tests, particularly those concerned with short-term events. Dogs have semantic memory, which is why they can be taught tricks and how they know what to do to survive, but they often lack episodic memory, which most humans have in droves. This means that dogs forget most specific events they’ve been through, sometimes after just two minutes - which is probably why they’re so excited all the time. So, if we didn’t have memory, much would depend on exactly which types of memory we no longer had. In general, though, our most basic, survival instincts would dictate most of our actions. We’d at least have fewer things to worry about, but this would be a simpler life with many things missing. We wouldn’t have technology; we wouldn’t create art or even ask questions; there would be precious little variety in any of our existences, and even less by way of advancement. With all of our time dedicated to surviving, to making some sense in amongst the confusion, would we even be able to make friends or recognise our own family? Probably not, making this particular scenario sound more and more like a dystopic nightmare.

For a particularly famous and accessible exploration of memory loss, there’s the Christopher Nolan movie “Memento.” It follows Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce, a man who has anterograde amnesia and forgets everything every fifteen minutes or so, as he tries to find the person who killed his wife and caused the injury that led to his condition. Leonard goes about his task by following the informative tattoos he himself is covered in and by examining photographs that he takes and writes notes on. To simulate for the audience what it’s like to have amnesia, however, most of the movie’s scenes are shown in reverse order, so the viewer learns information in the same way that Leonard does.

While “Memento” naturally employs some dramatic licence, various scientific studies have actually been carried out on it - and it is especially praised for creating an “always present” feeling, the like of which a memory loss sufferer might experience. In 2018, a landmark experiment had two groups of people watch the movie inside an MRI machine. It was found that the group who watched the film in reverse order (i.e., the intended order), had spikes of brain activity - nicknamed “fingerprints” - during fifteen key, repeated moments in the story. The other group were played the events of the film in chronological order (not as they appear in the final cut) and displayed none of these fingerprints at all. The two drastically different viewing experiences are said to highlight just how difficult it is to live with a memory condition, and “Memento” has been hailed by professionals as being one of the most accurate portrayals of memory loss (and specifically anterograde amnesia) on-screen.

But “Memento” is just one film about one man in one situation. Throw the whole of the human population into a similar scenario, then, and finding a solution, a way to survive, becomes all the more difficult. Without the ability to recollect we’d lose our sense of self and identity, as well as one of the fundamental traits that make human beings truly unique in the world. And that’s what would happen if we didn’t have memory.