Our recent discussions about the cognitive process of memory had me thinking about a certain movie I saw many years ago, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). **Spoilers ahead if you have not seen it and might want to*** The film follows a man named Joel whose girlfriend of two years left him abruptly after a fight. She then completely disappears from his life. The sudden breakup greatly upsets Joel and he voices his distress to his sister and her husband. His sister then reveals to him that the woman he dated for so long had a procedure to erase all memories of Joel from her mind. Now angry that she would want to completely forget him Joel seeks out the very same procedure.
For the company to retrieve the memories to be forgotten they ask Joel to bring in to the office every item he associates with Clementine. Then they present Joel with each object and ask him to recall the memory and feelings associated with it. By this process of association, the company then maps out on an image of his brain the location of each memory. Later in the film, Joel is sedated and technicians get to work individually deleting every memory at each of those locations. During the procedure, Joel becomes consciously aware that they are deleting his memories of Clementine; both the memories filled with joy and the memories filled with pain. He attempts to wake himself up and reverse the procedure, but he does not succeed. Inside the last remaining memory, the memory where they first met, Clementine tells Joel to meet her in Montauk. The next morning, Joel wakes up from the procedure, remembering nothing about Clementine or that he had undergone the procedure in the first place. Soon, he finds himself ditching work to go to Montauk, a beach town, despite it being a cold winter day. He meets Clementine again. She states she felt the need to go there today. The pair becomes friends again, only to realize later that they had been lovers with an unhappy ending after finding their records of the procedure. Despite the fear the relationship could go the same way, they resolve to try again.
This film does an excellent job at conveying how our memory is a complicated system. For example, the chronological order of the story is fragmented and disordered to demonstrate how our storage and retrieval systems are. According to David Hartley, a phenomenological psychologist, when we perceive a stimulus we automatically associate it with memories, feelings, and related thoughts. These then gets attached to the memory, creating a retrieval path including those associations. Later these associations can help us jump from one memory to another, which is why the story line of Joel’s memories appears fragmented. They are out of order to emphasize Joe’s associations between the memories.
This idea that there are important associations between memories that guide our process of retrieval could be why it is so difficult to forget negative memories. Even in instances of repression they are never truly gone. This movie makes me curious if with modern technology could we someday create a process to erase parts of a person’s memory, while leaving other aspects untouched. It would be difficult to test out ethically, but this could be monumental for individuals suffering from PTSD for example. Traumatic memories can greatly interrupt these individual’s lives and if we could create a procedure to erase that negative memory that could be incredibly powerful.
According to a February 2015 feature on the American Psychological Association’s website, there is research being done to make it possible for people to forget traumatic memories. They have had success with mice exposed to a loud noise. These mice had surgically installed plexiglass into their brains so the researchers can observer fluorescent neurotransmitters in action. They gave the mice a drug that blocks the proteins increased in amygdala after a fear response. The result? The mice did not learn or remember the loud noise when it was repeated after the drug exposure. It is unclear what this could mean for humans and of course, more research needs to be done, but could forgetting a traumatic memory be possible in the distant future? I believe it can be and someday the idea of forgetting a series of memories won’t just be a plot point in a fantastic movie.