Joel and Clementine are polar opposites, but seem to be destined to be together. Almost a year after they first met, their loving relationship has become a series of arguments and constant bickering. Joel attempts to ameliorate the situation, but comes to find Clementine completely oblivious as to who he is. He soon finds out that she has had him completely erased from her memory. The shock and hurt of this leads Joel to do the same. However, through the process of removing the memories, Joel realizes how valuable their relationship really is.
The Emotional Core of Memory
Jessica A. Zamzow
Memories can evoke a whole host of feelings including joy, pleasure, fear or grief. But memories are unstable during recall and can be manipulated, disrupted, or even strengthened in a process...
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. (Kindt, et al., 2009, Soeter & Kindt, 2010 ). Much of the research surrounding beta-blockers has implicated their potential for patients who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although Beta-blockers appear to be successful at dissociating the fear response from a conditioned stimuli, this type of drug may not be effective in dissociating the types of emotional trauma associated with loss or grief, (Soeter & Kindt, 2010) as seen in the movie.
In ESSM, most of the patients who seek Dr. Mierzwaik’s care have gone through the trauma of losing the one they loved through a break-up. Although this is not severe enough to trigger PTSD in most people, it is still a distressing event for which the sufferers experience pain each time they remember the person. As in PTSD, the problem is not necessarily the memory itself, but the emotional response associated with its recall (Evars, 2007). In healthy adults, memories fade and the emotional response is dampened over time. However, in the society depicted in ESSM people have access to immediate relief of their problem memories, eradicating both the declarative memories and emotional responses these memories trigger. The price they must pay is that they lose all memories, the good and the bad and even any knowledge or conscious recognition of who the person is.
The characters in ESSM seek the help of Dr. Mierzwaik to relieve the suffering caused by emotionally distressing memories. The end goal of Dr. Mierzwaik’s procedure is liberation from painful memories of a particular person but at the price of losing all memories of that person and the relationship. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind extends the science-based theory of memory reconsolidation and the instability of the declarative and emotional aspects of memory into the realm of science fiction. Current science aims to lessen the negative emotion associated with specific traumatic memories. ESSM stretches this notion to the mistaken idea that specific memories can be pinpointed and erased like files in a computer. Memory doesn’t operate that way in the brain. However the movie provides great food for thought: if you could get rid of a painful memory, would you be willing to lose the good with the bad?
Bregman, A. (Producer), & Gondry M. (Writer/Director) Kaufman, C., & Bismuth, P. (Writers). (2004). Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.
Yadin Dudai. (2006). Reconsolidation: the advantage of being refocused, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 16(2), 174-178.
Evars, K. (2007). Perspectives on memory manipulation: using Beta-blockers to cure post- traumatic stress disorder. Neuroethics, 16, 138-146.
Kindt, M., et al. (2009). "Beyond extinction: erasing human fear responses and preventing the return of fear." Nature Neuroscience, 12(3), 256-258.
Soeter, M., Kindt, M. (2010). Dissociating response systems: erasing fear from memory. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 94, 30-41.