“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an American romantic drama with elements of science fiction that gives insight into the procedure of memory erasing. The movie tells a story of two lovers who decided to erase each other from their memories. Joel Barish is a shy and not very successful man who meets eccentric and weird Clementine Kruczynski.
Even though Joe and Clementine seem to have nothing in common, they start dating right away because of the attraction they feel towards each other. As it then becomes clear, they have already known each other before they decided to erase each other from their minds. After big scandal Clementine left Joel. She used the services of a company called Lacuna Inc to erase Joel from her memory.
When he came to her book shop where she worked as a seller, she could not remember him. Having found that out, Joel felt himself emptied and decided to undergo the same procedure. The rest of the film happens mainly in mind of Joel. When the erasing process goes on, he finds out that he no longer wants to forget about Clementine forever. So Joel tries to hide her in remote parts of his subconscious so as not to erase all his memories of her and their relationships. In the end Joel and Clementine meet each other. Having found their records from Lacuna, they feel embarrassed since they do not remember each other clearly.
The procedure of memory erasing which both Joel and Clementine underwent was in the following way described by the doctor to Joel, “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage. It’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking, nothing you’ll miss”.
Of course, nowadays it is not possible to get a certain person erased from your memory in a selective fashion. “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” gives reader a clue on the great difference between emotional experience and passive one.
In “Reconsolidation: the advantage of being refocused” Dudai argues that long-term memory can be influenced and thus changed in the result of such an influence. He names the process of changing long-term memory “reconsolidation” as opposed to “consolidation” ― a process of transforming unstable short-term memory into more stable long-term one. He emphasizes that, contrary to consolidation, reconsolidation happens not in every case. According to Dudai, reconsolidation cannot be compared to memory erasing. In case of post re-consolidation amnesia, there still were typical behavioral attributes of extinction such as “context-dependant renewal, spontaneous recovery and unconditioned stimulus”(p.175). Reconsolidation can offer several possibilities which may even strengthen the memory. It is a selective process, so only specific segments of memory (the ones which are associated with fear) can become reactivated.
Reconsolidation, as Dudai (2006) states, has its boundaries: trace dominance (“an ability of the association to control behavior after retrieval”) (p.175); age of memory (the older the memory, the more difficult it is to change it); reconsolidation has been mainly tested on animals and its effect on people is still unclear.
According to Dudai (2006), feelings like pleasure or joy, grief or fear can be recalled by memories. However, the latter can be manipulated or disrupted when reconsolidated (p.174). I hold the view that in the movie Dr. Mierzwaik who held the erasing procedure, made the following: he made his patients forcefully recall things they wanted to forger in order to exterminate the emotional roots of the memory. When the roots were exterminated, the memory began to degrade. By and large, the procedure which Dr. Mierzwaik used was aimed at attacking memory systems at the same time so as to eradicate not only declarative memories, but also amygdale based emotional memories associated with them.
So, when a person sleeps, in a dream state he can get access to his memory. This is a period which Dr. Merzwaik uses so as to erase the memory. His procedure is aimed at destroying memory and making sure it won’t be recalled in future.
Kindt explains reconsolidation as reactivation of some memories that are associated with a certain stimuli. It has been found by Kindt (2009) that “that oral administration of the β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol before memory reactivation in humans erased the behavioral expression of the fear memory 24 h later and prevented the return of fear”(p.256). He also emphasizes that such an erase of memory can be done not only for people who have a certain fear memory, but also for people with drug addiction for extinction of drug memories and restoring control over drug cravings.
According to Kindt (2009), “Real world memory altering drugs called Beta-blockers (e.g. Propanolol) invoke the closest process for dampening the stress response associated with a fear-based memory. They work by blocking the noradrenergic response during recall. This decouples the emotional response from the memory over time, lessening the fear but leaving the recall of the memory intact” (p.256). It can be concluded from the research carried that this can be used for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be concluded that even though beta-blockers can be successfully employed at dissociating fear response from a certain stimuli, this drug has not yet be proved effective in dissociating such traumas as loss of grief.
According to Evars, beta-blockers can stop the action of stress hormones by reducing the emotional impact of disturbing memories or prevent their consolidation. Her research is aimed at people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Evars (2007), the brain can produce false images in some situations. But experience as a brain construct makes them true (p.139).
Evars (2007) suggests a model where the brain is “an autonomously active, projective and variable system, in which emotions and values are incorporated as necessary constraints” (p.140). She gives emotions the leading role in formation of vivid images in the memory. Therefore in order to “erase” the memory, a person has to get rid of emotional response which he has to a certain memory. Evars proves beta-blockers to be successful at reconsolidation by destroying an emotional response. Nevertheless her experiments were carried out mainly on animals. Therefore long-term effect of beta-blockers on human memory is still to be under research as well as other methods of memory erasing.
It can be concluded from the movie that every person who used services of Lacuna Inc. experienced emotional trauma associated with break-up. This, though, cannot be considered as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, Evars (2007) argues that “…the problem is not necessarily the memory itself, but the emotional response associated with its recall” (p.139).
In “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” episodic memory is being erased (e.g. the episodic recall of a specific event in a particular place and time) because both Joel and Clementine erase memories about each other.
In the movie erasing of memory is possible based on the scientific assumption that the nature of emotional memories greatly differs from the unemotional ones. Experiencing bad emotions, people can then feel their long-lasting effect on their memory. In “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” traumatic memories are stored in different places with other memories in the brain.
To sum up, taking into account the scholarly sources which have been reviewed, the movie cannot be considered to be truly scientific for several reasons. Firstly, currently there are no such procedures which could erase memories about lovers with whom people broke-up. The real procedure is called reconsolidation, however, it deals with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (people experience fear, not grief or loss). Secondly, nowadays there is no scientific method which would erase the memory about a certain person forever. Rather, only slight memory enhancement can be possible in the nearest future. Thirdly, the procedure of erasing memory would not be similar to the one described in the movie. It would rather be an ordinary pill like Prozac.
Speaking of realistic and unrealistic details in “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”, realistic are the first ones that come on my mind. Procedure of erasing memory is possible, roughly speaking. It is also true that emotional memories are different from unemotional ones. The doctor uses the right method to erase the memory – he makes a selective erasure by triggering memories which he would like to erase. After the procedure Joel takes medicine that systematically re-triggers previously recorder memories. Soon those memories become erased. The basic procedure of memory erasing is, by and large, a bit similar to the process of reconsolidation.
With a view to make the movie more true to current science life, I would change some details. Clementine and Joel would not break up. Instead, Joel would die and Clementine would grieve over him. Then she would have a post-traumatic stress syndrome and experience sense of fear every time she comes into the apartment where she lived together with Joel. She goes to the hospital where the doctor gives her a pill. She takes medicine several times in the course of several days to get her memories of Joel more unclear. After some time she would no longer be afraid to come in into their apartment.