Thursday, November 1, 2007
The neuroscience of memory & the flapping of a butterfly's wings, or how you cannot change history (Film - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Okay, Sheila, I've finally seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, believe it or not, I actually liked it. I somehow held my detestation of Jim Carey at bay long enough to get through an entire movie with him. Of anything I've seen with him, he was the best in this without a doubt. We actually get a glimpse of him occasionally. I can really see why you like this film the romance of impulsiveness meets the ultimate in self-awareness its like the yin and the yang of... someone, I can't place her.
Probably the entire world has seen this film before I have, since my Net Flix is the public library, but the short and sweet on the plot is: a guy and girl break up and want to forget each other and there is a doctor who can provide just this service. There are two things that stay with me - the whole exploration of memory (obviously). It's mostly unscientific but it does capture something essential about the meaning of memory and its link to who we are. Science cannot see the places where given memories are stored, let alone manipulate them with precision. According to some theories, it's likely that what we think of as "individual memories" are built of a network of widely distributed modules of transformed synapses (the spaces between the nerve cells). And these modules are building blocks that form the bases of many memories. The living room of your grandmother doesn't sit in a bin somewhere in your brain. There are modules for grandmothers, houses, rooms, living rooms, sofas, things that happened when you were eight, that are simultaneously activated that form a composite that could have some sensory-like information (they act upon the "mind's eye") and also have some semantic components - fact-like components i.e. things we know, these link and reconstitute the place, event, person, that we have searched for. Most often the process is piecemeal. We don't see an entire room complete with all its furniture and paintings on the wall, we get a whiff of it and then complete its sense with semantic glue - filling in what we know should be there. If we want to see the couch then, we have to reconstitute a new image for that. Each act of remembering changes the memory indelibly, so memories are not frozen. Even if they seem to stay the same that is because we preserve an illusion that they are because we "know" that they refer to the same event or place. It's similar to what we do with perceiving the shape of a half-open door in a frame. Most of us (except trained draftsmen) would say that the door is a rectangle because we know that the shape of the door is actually a rectangle. But when half open, it is a trapezoid, we maintain the constancy of its shape through our knowledge, not our eyes. I post about the phenomenon of perceptual constancy here. Jonah Lehrer does a good job talking about the inconstancy of memory in his chapter on Proust in his new book which I've written about at length here. The point is memories may seem to be whole, indelible, tangible things but there are rather ever-changing interelationships between many things. This film is great in how it imagines the landscape of our memories. The scenes where Carey's character tries to find refuge in his own brain away from the eradication of memories of his relationship are wonderful.
If a service existed that could wipe out specific memories, people would be lined up around the block. The second thing I enjoyed about the film, was the trio of Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst - who are the technical team and receptionist of this business that wipes out specific memories - and also Tom Wilkinson as the maverick doctor. They created this marvelously loopy band - truly devoted to their work, kind of quirky -but not just fashionably weird, they're all really messed up humans trying desperately to be happy and the film communicates marvelously why they are working for this company.
It strikes me that the nearest parallel we actually have in our world to wiping out personal memories (aside from the self-medication some of us practice) is the efforts whole cultures have made to obliterate aspects of their history. We did it in the U.S. with the settlement of our land and the missing story of the treatment native peoples received. Soviet school books left out huge chunks of history and sent people to asylums in an attempt to change their relationship to the past. Mao's cultural revolution tried to wipe out all vestiges of a rich former culture. Many countries in the Western argue with Turkey about the Armenian genocide. Even if the Turks got a different name for this episode, do the shameful events change? It is impossible to erase the traces, whether of mass murder, or a love affair between two people. Think of it, we say the whole world changes at the beat of a butterflies wings, how many things then would have to change to un-do all the things that happened in the relationship between two people. The company in the film Eternal Sunshine... alters the brain of one person, but they are compelled to send out letters to all the people who know their client and ask them not to speak of the relationship - it is very much re-writing Soviet history books when there are still people living who can talk about the past. Unfortunately, Stalin didn't just send them letters.
I can understand why this film became the cultural phenomenon that it is. It has some of the appeal of a really great oddball romance (Bringing up Baby or The Sterile Cuckoo) mixed with a sort-of wacky, mod, existential sci-fi flavor of Being John Malkovitch, combined with a rococo zealous imagination like that of a Terry Gilliam film. It sits on the edge of our scientific knowledge, creating a film with a loving imagination.