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Technology has always been a double-edged sword, having major benefits for humanity but also coming with drawbacks. The Digital Age is certainly no different.
The same is true with scientific breakthroughs. Though, most often they benefit human beings, some newly developed techniques can be quite frightening and, in the wrong hands, can be abused. Like changing a person’s memory of certain events or, worse, implanting false memories.
Julia Shaw, a criminal psychologist, has done the latter. As reported by Motherboard, Shaw specializes in the science behind memory, admitting that she was a kind of “memory hacker” in which she used “the science of memory to make you think you did things that never happened.”
And, as it happens, implanting a false memory in someone’s mind is very easy to do.
What could go wrong with that? And, as a criminal psychologist, when would you ever want to convince a patient they had done something they really hadn’t?
The process ‘can be manipulated’
When Motherboard caught up with Shaw, born in Canada but now living in London, she had traveled back to Toronto to promote her new book, “The Memory Illusion.” In its pages she provides details as to how it is possible to deliberately place false memories in a person’s mind, which can then lead to false police confessions and send the wrong person to jail. It is even possible to implant “memories” of being abducted by “aliens” that, of course, did not happen.
In her interview with the tech Web site, she said that memories are really just “a network of brain cells.” She further explained that the network actually stretches across various regions of the brain and are continually updated. “It’s an important function that allows us humans to learn new things and to problem-solve, among other skills.” But, as she reveals, that process and network “can be manipulated.”
Every time a person verbally recounts a story they change it somewhat, Shaw said. Humans add or leave out small details, sometimes adding in bits of information heard from someone else. This can lead to the creation of new and, very possibly, inaccurate connections and accounts.
For instance, she continued, if a person believes they can accurately recount anything before the age of two-and-a-half years, that’s not a valid memory. Shaw said the period before reaching that age is one in which our brains are simply not developed enough to preserve and share memories due to a condition called childhood or infantile amnesia.
Memories from birth to two years old were “either given to you through photos, you saw a picture, or maybe your parents told you a story,” said Shaw, as recounted by Motherboard. “You can internalize them quite readily.”
Our perception of reality will be provided for us
But being able to manipulate memories because they are so interchangeable actually has important uses for the criminal justice system, among other things, said Shaw – a senior lecturer and researcher in the Department of Law and Studies at London South Bank University. Indeed, that is the primary focus in her research.
She says in her lab she will convince subjects via memory hacking that they have committed crimes that never happened. She added that she hacks memories “to show that the interrogation process can really distort memories, in consistent ways.”