A first kiss. A job promotion. The birth of your first child. These are some of the mental images our human brain collectively stores away to create what we call memories. We accumulate many over a period of time as we experience life from childhood to adulthood. When memories are pleasant we reach for them from the back corners of our mind in an attempt to relive them in perfect detail, a personal home video only we can access. Memories we'd rather forget often take great effort not to think about them at all. Michel Gondry's 2004 film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the episode "The Entire History Of You" from Netflix's Black Mirror both explore memory's effect on individuals, while showing different perspectives on how we deal with positive and negative experiences.
The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind presents a brilliant and unique situation. Would you undergo a procedure that can erase the memories of a romantic relationship gone bad? The film follows Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) who gets the procedure done after learning his ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) has already effectively erased Joel and their relationship from her mind. By venturing inside Joel's head, and seeing all the good and bad memories of his relationship get wiped clean, we are left wondering if such a procedure is truly beneficial. Are we only running away from our problems and pain instead of facing what's difficult and learning from the experience in some way?
According to Steve Johnson's 2004 Slate article "The Science of Eternal Sunshine," the film has a complete grasp on how the brain and memory works. What the film seems to get right is how the brain processes emotional memories from unemotional ones.
Negative emotional memories, for instance, tend to capture more details about the experience than positive ones: You remember the general feeling of a nice day at the beach, but you remember every little detail of the two seconds when that Buick crashed into you back in high school.
If we tend to remember negative emotional memories in minute detail over the positive ones we experience, we can understand why a memory-erasing procedure would be so attractive to Joel and Clementine. Both have hurt and been hurt by each other in the relationship. Instead of living with the pain and sadness the relationship has caused them, it's much easier to get rid of those memories and the emotions attached to them all together. When we have to live with the memories of pain and loss, we sometimes unintentionally dwell on the negative experiences instead of moving past them and healing. We replay every barbed insult or rejection until it becomes a feedback loop serving to drive someone deeper into depression or misery. However, as Joel quickly learns, not every memory is worth erasing.
As Joel relives all the experiences he shared with Clementine during the memory wipe, he remembers all the good times he had with her too. Not everything about the relationship he had with Clementine was always so bad. In fact, they were genuinely happy and very much in love with each other once. Joel's literal trip down memory lane also lets him see what went right with the relationship, what went terribly wrong, and the part he played in all of it.
Joel and Clementine aren't entirely innocent when it comes to the demise of their relationship. As a couple, they could have done more to be understanding and patient with each other. Joel learns through his memories what he could have done differently and how he may have failed in working through the difficulties in their relationship. Joel's regret of undergoing the procedure also shows how, despite how badly the relationship went, there were good times too. He realizes he wants to keep the good memories of Clementine because life will always be a collection of joy and sorrow. No one can experience life without one or the other. This particular quote near the end of the movie sums up the wisdom Joel gains during the memory wipe:
Clementine: "This is it, Joel. It's going to be gone soon."
Joel: "I know."
Clementine: "What do we do?"
Joel: "Enjoy it."
What's true about relationships (and life in general) is we never know how long things will last. It may last forever or it may only last two years. The future is never guaranteed. Instead, we can only enjoy the moment right now. Joel no longer mourns the loss of the relationship, but accepts and is grateful for the time he had with Clementine. No matter how short-lived the relationship was, being with Clementine helped Joel grow as an individual and better understand himself in the process. Taking these key memories away from someone actually keeps people from learning a necessary part about being terrifically imperfect humans: We can't escape pain; it only finds a way to catch up with us in the end.
An Entire History Within A Single Grain
The episode '"The Entire History Of You" from the first season of Netflix's Black Mirror takes a decidedly different approach to how humans deal with their memories. Humans of the future are implanted with a chip behind their ear called a "grain" that gives them the ability to record and play back their memories at will. They can even choose to play back their memories on a high-definition screen for friends and family to see.
On the surface it may seem like this future tech would be really cool to have. No one has to worry about remembering details of an event or moment again. The scenario would be every forgetful person's dream come true. However, it may actually be someone's worst nightmare, especially if you're in a romantic relationship and suspect your partner is being unfaithful to you.
The episode centers around Liam who, after attending a friend's dinner party, has reason to suspect his wife, Ffion, may harbor feelings for Jonas, one of the guests at the dinner party. Despite his wife dismissing Liam's concerns as baseless (though admitting she did have one meaningless fling with Jonas before she met her husband), Liam doesn't seem so convinced.
"The Entire History Of You" goes to dark and punishing places, where Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind remains mostly hopeful and optimistic in spite of its exploration of relationships and the nature of heartbreak. The episode in Black Mirror is a cautionary tale about how humans, whether we have the ability to record our memories or not, will always find a way to sabotage themselves and their relationships.
While the episode does confirm that Liam's wife hasn't been entirely faithful, or isn't as upfront about her past with Jonas as she would have him (and the viewer) believe, it does present the possibility of Liam being entirely wrong about what he saw and making something out of nothing. The tech appears to promote 100 percent accuracy of an event, recording everything as a moment unfolds, leaving no room for error or alterations, unless someone decides to "erase" certain memories. One of the friends at the dinner party stands by the tech and declares,
"You know, half the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy when it comes to little things and big ones."
If we're supposed to believe our organic memories without the "grain" are unreliable and we have a higher chance of recalling them inaccurately, the solution would be to record everything to avoid all of that. Yet, Liam's use of the "grain" doesn't necessarily prove the tech is trustworthy when it comes to "little things and big ones," either. What the tech successfully does is increase Liam's paranoia and distrust in his wife.
Liam can't resist reading into every little interaction or look at his wife's exchanges with Jonas and goes as far as to involve the couple's babysitter to help confirm what he's seeing. Liam's obsessive pursuit for the truth about his wife creates, in his mind, incontrovertible proof of her wrongdoing based on what he observes. In reality, it isn't actual proof of anything. An outside observer would only see two people having a brief and casual conversation with each other. Nothing more. The "grain" may record every moment exactly as it plays out, but it isn't entirely without error when you factor in how a human thinks and acts. We see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. Liam only sees his wife as a liar and a cheat and it doesn't leave room for her to exonerate herself.
The "grain" may be useful in keeping records of our memories, but the tech doesn't really make people's lives any easier, either. It only serves as a tool for people to use against each other in a battle of who's right or wrong. As Sam Richards of The Telegraph notes in his review of the episode about the tech,
It would give bickering couples a wealth of ammunition, encouraging them to analyze their relationships to death, which is exactly what happened here.
The victory Liam supposedly achieved by uncovering his wife's infidelity only leaves him miserable and empty inside. Even after his wife has left him, Liam finds himself replaying back memories of their lives together when they were happy. Having access to these memories isn't helping facilitate Liam's healing process, but keeping him firmly rooted in the past and reliving these moments anytime he wants. This isn't healthy for him. The episode seems to imply that maybe it's best not to know or see everything, whether it's your own memories or another person's memories. Rather than remember everything in vivid and high detail, maybe we're better off letting some memories gradually fade with time until it's only an echo of a moment gone and past.
Teach Me How To Forget
Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind and Black Mirror's "The Entire History Of You" share the similarity of exploring romantic relationships in relation to memory. Are we better off erasing painful experiences to live a life of ignorant bliss? Can we handle the ability to record and replay our memories, even if it wreaks havoc on our personal lives when we read into every real or imagined suspicion, fear, or paranoia we have about those we love the most? The film and episode offer us visions of a future for us to think about. What we take away from these stories will depend on how we look at the world and how we deal with our own accumulation of memories.
Would you choose to have your memories recorded or simply wiped away?