Should You Download Someone Else’s Memories?

Two philosophers respond to Mark Oshiro’s short story “No Me Dejas.”

Painting of transparent hands covering two eyes.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Two philosophers respond to Mark Oshiro’s short story “No Me Dejas.”

What will you think about during the last moments of your life? Perhaps, as many suspect, your life flashes before your eyes, offering you a rapid swirl of images, events, and emotions that encapsulate your time on this Earth. But what if, during your last moments, your life flashed before someone else’s eyes?

A similar, naturally occurring phenomenon already exists. Eleven-year-olds Krista and Tatiana Hogan are conjoined twins who were born with connected skulls. Their brains are fused together by a neural bridge that connects them at their respective thalami. The thalamus is the brain’s sensory relay center. It is like the brain’s postal delivery service (although orders of magnitude faster), for relying sensory information and motor commands. Remarkably, this neural bridge allows each girl’s thalamus to send and receive signals to and from the brain of her sister.

Some twins have a secret language, but Krista and Tatiana share sensations, literally seeing out of each other’s eyes and even hearing each other’s thoughts. One will laugh when the other is tickled, and while watching TV, only one needs to have her eyes on the screen. Both enjoy the show! This is their normal. (Their fascinating story is told in a new Canadian documentary, Inseparable.)

At some point in the future, could an A.I. company manufacture something akin to a neural bridge, allowing ordinary people to occasionally share their experiences? Maybe. Elon Musk recently announced the founding of Neuralink, a company that aims to put A.I. inside the head, merging humans and machines. Neural lace, the artificial hippocampus, brain chips to treat mood and memory disorders—these are just some of the mind-altering A.I. technologies already under development. While it may not be around the corner, a device akin to a temporary neural bridge—something that users can occasionally insert when they wish to share experiences—isn’t that far-fetched. Perhaps couples would long to try it on a date. At parties, people might even pass it around like a joint, to break the ice. But before you try the Vulcan mind meld for yourself, beware—this could be a bad trip. As professor Snape needed to remind Harry Potter, “The mind is not a book to be opened at will and examined at leisure.” If you could ever access the contents of someone else’s mind, it would take skill and time to sort through its complexities. Krista and Tatiana have had a lifetime of experience accessing each other’s minds. Without a deep history of shared signaling between your brains, it is unclear whether you and your friends would be able to interpret one another’s experiences.

Memories are not like files stored on a flash drive that can be plugged into any kind of operating system and appear the same to the user. They are dynamic and prone to reinterpretation. Information gleaned from a transferlike scenario would be unreliable, as the human brain is great at devising tricks for making sense of chaotic inputs. What you were able to access would likely be a distortion of the original memory—that is, if you were able to glean anything at all.

Even if it were possible, should regular people like you and me really want to share our raw, intimate moments, at the moment of death, without the opportunity to explain the memories? What if, as is likely, our memories are misinterpreted?

In Mark Oshiro’s gripping story, Carmen has no chance to contextualize the bits and pieces of her history that Gabriela receives. She is gone, even before her heart stops beating. Gabriela doesn’t seem to appreciate this until after the Transfer is complete, and the light is dying out of her grandmother’s eyes. No me dejas, she thinks (in English, don’t leave me). If you were given an instant to read the book of someone’s life, you might want to look them in the eyes afterward. You might want some help sorting through the information. But Gabriela is alone.

Of course, we can share memories with our grandchildren, and pass treasured secrets on through generations, without a neural-link procedure. But given that Carmen doesn’t communicate her story herself, Gabriela seems to be looking in on something private, personal—something she wasn’t supposed to see—when she sees her grandmother’s memories. Her brain was scrambling to make sense of the massive informational load, not being used to processing someone else’s memories. Amid this chaos, Gabriela loses track of whose body she is in. She feels pain, unsure whose pain it is.

Our connection to our own history is deeper than just encoding into our memories a register of events, like a videotape in our minds. We construct from our experiences a story of our lives wherein we figure in as both subject and agent. Without being the agent who made the decision to leave her brother, Gabriela’s access to the memory of doing so is detached, chaotic. She is an outsider looking in, through someone else’s eyes, someone else’s past, unsure how to process the experience she is having. She wanted to connect with her grandmother, but instead she may have just come to be more disconnected from herself.

This seems to be a recurring theme, in the age of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: oversharing but not really connecting. The tools we design to connect people may serve to further isolate us—not only from one another, but from ourselves, and our shared humanity. As the Transfer illustrates beautifully, the human connection is more than simply transferring information between two skulls. The story of your life wouldn’t be worth anything if it were merely kept on a hard drive and downloaded into the brain, like one downloads a program. That information would be disconnected from the person whose lived experience that story represents, and whose perspective it should be told from.

No me dejas. Don’t go. Gabriela had no idea the value of what she was missing until it was gone. The “memories” she was left with were only fragmented copies, incomparable to even just one final chance to look into her grandmother’s eyes and share their last moment together.