Author Archives: linnis

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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.

The Absence of Fear

As some of you likely know National Public radio produces a variety of podcasts. My favorite, Invisibilia, is a podcast that exists to explain the psychology behind our everyday behaviors with case studies and research. In season one episode two, the hosts explore the feeling of fear, where it comes from, and what happens when someone does not experience it.

The program begins by arguing that today people are experiencing more fear in their daily lives than ever before. This point is emphasized with a story about an environmental psychologist, Dr. Roger Hart, who followed around a large sample of children in a small town in Vermont to see how far they could go from their homes. When this study was done in the 1970s children as young as four years old could travel unsupervised for generous distances documented by Roger Hart on a map. By age ten, some children could travel the entire town unsupervised, at the time in history it seemed parents did not fear things like shootings or abduction. Recently, Dr. Hart discovered that children in that same town were only allowed to walk unsupervised in their own yard though statistically the crime rate and other variables in the town remain virtually the same.

The host of the program asserts that statistically crime rates are at the lowest levels ever nationally, however more and more Americans are modifying their behaviors based on the more constant presence of fear. Therefore, the presence of fear is influencing our decision making. Dr. Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology at Caltech, stated that our overall fear threshold or how much fear we experience daily was set at a high level. Naturally, our body is going to perceive some stimuli and possible threats and be wrong, false positives as the program calls them. This adaptation worked well in ancient times when there was more danger present in the everyday. However, Dr. Adolphs insists that today fear is experienced more often, with more false alarms than before, and influences our decisions more than necessary.

In our textbook we learned that specific areas of the brain are responsible for different functions. Through localization data it was determined that the area of the brain responsible for producing a fear response through a circuit of neurological connections is called the amygdala. The amygdala perceives what stimuli should be considered a threat. However, what happens when the brain is damaged, and a person cannot experience fear? The hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller interviewed neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, Antonio D’Mazzio, who worked with a woman named SM. SM was physically incapable of experiencing fear. Dr. D’Mazzio described how by looking at SM you could not tell that she had this condition however, through neuroimaging like PET and MRI scans they were able to determine that she suffers from a disease called, Urbach-Wiethe. An incredibly rare disease, the sufferers have calcified masses on their amygdala. In SM’s case her amygdala are completely covered. This causes her to be biologically incapable of experiencing fear.

At first, to me this condition sounded like a super power, but as explained by SM’s case it is extremely dangerous. Without the sense of fear she has been taken advantage of in the past at the worst she has been held at knife and gunpoint. Scientists have tried to expose her to fearful things to no reaction and even conducted an experiment to condition her to experience fear, all to no result. The only positive of her situation is that because she cannot conceptualize that she was threatened in her past she has not had any past bad situations. In fact, when asked if she was usually happy SM said, “9 times out of 10, yes I’m happy.”

This podcast, the stories, and research it presented demonstrates topics covered so far in our class. It shows that areas of the brain are specialized and have different cognitive functions, that damage to them can prove their function (localization), and that there is biological basis for our decision making or cognitive skills. In SM’s case her lack of fear causes her to perceive every stimulus as not a threat. By examining case studies like SM’s and through techniques like neuroimaging and cognitive tasks we can learn more about our thoughts, where they come from, and how we might prevent them from controlling our behavior in maladaptive ways.

Spiegel, Alix, and Lulu Miller. “Fearless.” Invisibilia, season 1, episode 2,