Sunday, January 13, 2013

Memory on Film: From Implants to Mind Manipulation

Memory respresentation as a warrior woman

I had to remind myself not to forget to write this post since once an idea is forgotten, it ends up in the trash can of no-man's land (located at the intersection of the Bermuda Triangle). I wonder how many brilliant books and movies have been heaped upon the dustbin of lost, abandoned or never-realized projects. It happens everyday everywhere to everyone; we tend to forget to put on paper ideas that would have (potentially) made an impact on our lives.

Memoryis essential for our everyday existence; it is the glue that connects our yesterdays with the present moments to create a (somewhat) cohesive picture of ourselves, of our lives. Any disconnect will disrupt our sense of continuity and create a dent or hole in our personality and being. In fact, such disconnects, especially if on repeated basis, will not only confuse but create a thickening cloud of insanity.

Memory has been portrayed in a number of films, most notably in the modern era where one has shifted from accepted given absolute truths to a more personal subjective and fallible view of reality. And this sense of disorientation and confusion, coupled with technology is best viewed in dystopian movies like Total Recall and Dark City among various others. Please keep in mind that there might be minor movie spoilers ahead though I will not divulge any endings.

The movie Total Recall (I am only referring to the original Verhoeven film as I have not seen - nor am I interested in - the more recent remake) asks us a simple but terrifying question: What if we could create fake memories? The protagonist takes advantage of an inexpensive (virtual-reality) trip in which the memory of a vacation on Mars is implanted as authentic / real-seeming as any other memory we have of our own past experiences.

Something goes wrong, (or does it?) and the protagonist becomes confused with his own identity. Did this experiment help him retrieve or dig out his own original and actual memories of his real life, his buried past as a secret agent? Is he not a construction worker but rather a high level secret agent whose memory has been erased so that he could blend in with society as a construction worker? Confused? Well, not half as much as our befuddled protagonist.

Let us say that we have the technology to erase / implant memories as was the case in the sublime film with the awkward title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I know it's taken from a Pope poem but it still rings awkward for a Hollywood movie title). In the movie, the main character decided to erase all the memories associated with his doomed love affair, which would seem like an ideal manner of escaping unpleasant memories and previous experiences. But the end result is other than expected since memories are not as clear-cut as they seem; they dangle on a slippery slope.

But what if you wake up one morning and feel strongly that you are someone else. How do you know that you are who you think you are? Do you check the mirror, your wallet? As a matter of fact, we can never be really sure since we could be deluding ourselves, or worse, we might be suffering from a mental illness.

Surely, we would lock up anybody who seriously thinks to be Napoleon or even Jesus (see the excellent and hilarious The Ruling Class to this effect, thanks dear Vincent for pointing out this precious gem to me!). It is easy to dismiss those famous alternate personalities, but what if you choose a random person nobody has ever heard of, say Arash Farzaneh?

Now this becomes a bit more existential here. We need others to confirm our identity in the sense of "I see you, therefore you exist." When I wake up and my wife greets me as the person I think I am (see above), then there you go; we have the confirmed evidence to go with the assumption. Right?

Not so fast if you are in the dilemma of Mr Nobody who on his deathbed with an ailing and confused memory tries to piece together his possible pasts to understand his actual present! But it is not always merely a metaphysical puzzle; it can also be that others are messing with you!

And this brings us to the somewhat overlooked and underrated cult film Dark City. Here the premise is that highly technologically advanced creatures have come to not only implant memories but to switch them overnight wholesale. 

So you would fall asleep as a couple slightly above the poverty line eating potatoes in a shack and wake up on a large dining table with servants serving you up steaks and fine wine. The transition would seem rather seamless because not only you buy this drastic change, but so does your wife to confirm this, and vice versa. Suddenly you are a completely different person with matching memories of that particular individual!

To take this question further (and to fry our brains a little more) what would happen if we could implant not only memories but transplant whole brains. It is one thing to be told embarrassing stories about some event in childhood that may have never happened and that you, through repeated telling, take as actual fact; it is quite another to have someone literally switch your brain with that of someone else's.

We may look at our face in the mirror and feel that something is amiss that somehow the name and the memories do not match the face, but there is no hard evidence. And think about it; we may be like the main character in Memento who has a mental condition affecting his short-term memory making him unable to create new stable memories; he would only remember a 90 second stretch and then forget everything. Suddenly he would look around and ask himself how he got to where he is and what he is doing with a wine bottle in the bathroom while not feeling drunk in the least.

This shows us that once we lose trust and faith in our memories, our identity and our whole world that we have created around us fall apart like a card-house. In a world where we constantly look for tangible facts, it seems strange that our personality is so brittle that a simple knock on the head in real life can erase it all. We end up being not who we thought we were (is somebody messing with our minds or are we doing it to ourselves?), but the question remains, who were we in the first place? Can we really trust our memories on this one?

1 comment:

Vincent said...

Good piece.

I'm glad you enjoyed the film. And I'm glad you wrote on memory in this way, too.

One's whole world, and much of one's responsibility, is centred on self-identity. Our vaunted civilization is based on individual uniqueness and non-interchangeability. Much of self-identity is based on memory, rather than today's sensations and images; and the older you get, the more memories take precedence over future expectations.

Yet this self-identity, the cornerstone of our civilization, may be, as the Indian sages have said, part of the great Maya, illusion.

And one could add another item in the long list of "What distinguishes Man from the other species?". Man lives by illusion.