The trippiest sci-fi movie on Amazon Prime reveals a strange debate about the human brain
“I’m erasing you, and I’m happy.”
Joel Barish’s waking days are consumed with the memory of his lost love, but as it turns out, his ex-lover has no memories of him at all.
Clementine Kruczynski has decided to completely erase her memories of Joel using some questionable new technology. In a stroke of revenge, Joel decides to erase Clementine as well, metaphorically blowing up his own love life — and the relationships of several other people in the process.
Released in 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains one of the most brilliant — and weirdest — sci-fi romances of all time. It’s now available for rental on Amazon Prime and is on NBC’s Peacock app for free.
But there’s one thing that’s been bugging us ever since Eternal Sunshine first premiered: can you actually erase your memories? And perhaps more importantly: should you even try to erase an ex-lover from your mind?
According to Elizabeth Kensinger, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies memory retrieval, the answer is no — for now.
“There is not yet any evidence to suggest that humans have the ability to erase a memory of a past experience,” Kensinger tells Inverse.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Can we see memory in the brain?
In Eternal Sunshine, both Clementine and Joel seek the services of Howard Mierzwiak, a doctor who runs a memory-erasing service. We see Mierzwiak strap some kind of bowl-shaped sensor to Joel’s head, which is presumably an electroencephalography (EEG) device used to monitor brain activity.
While Joel sleeps and undergoes the memory-erasing procedure, Mierzwiak’s employees monitor his brain on a kind of CAT scan, watching certain areas of the brain light up as Joel tries to “hide” in his memories.
“There are big problems with this depiction of watching the brain light up,” Kensinger says.
First of all, there’s no single part of the brain that controls memory. Certain parts of the brain — such as the visual cortex — control visual memory, while emotions are represented in brain regions specialized for processing. So the idea that Mierzwiak would be able to locate where specific memories are being erased — and where Joel is hiding in the brain — is pretty absurd.
“We would constantly be seeing activity patterns throughout the brain,” Kensinger says.
Second, brain activity for memory appears very similar to brain activity for imagining an event.
“At the level of detail that the doctor was able to see in the movie, it would not be possible to determine whether activity was arising because someone was recalling a memory or because they were imagining an event that might happen in the future or thinking about what might have been in the past,” Kensinger says.
Can you erase your memories?
“There is a scientific basis to what is represented in Eternal Sunshine, which is the discovery of a memory process termed reconsolidation,” Kensinger says.
Here’s how reconsolidation works: when scientists are working to retrieve lost memories from the brain, they have to actually restore the memories themselves.
“If something goes wrong during that process, the memory can be distorted or, theoretically, erased,” Kensinger says.
But there’s a catch. Only certain kinds of very simple memories can be erased. So it’s probably not possible for Joel to erase his past memories of the impossibly complex Clementine.
“While erasure is a possibility for very simple associative memories, for the types of rich associative memories that comprise human memories, there is no evidence that a memory can be completely erased,” Kensinger says.
As Inverse previously reported, neuroscientists are also working on a technique called “decoded neurofeedback” (DecNef) that “collects and parses brain signals using machine learning to modify painful memories” — a technique that eerily mirrors the movie’s mechanics.
There are some less invasive cognitive-behavioral techniques — therapy associated with reframing negative thoughts — that could also help minimize, if not erase, memories.
Cognitive behavioral therapy will “minimize what was bothering you — like if you have a situation that is anxiety-provoking and you can't get it out of your mind, whether it's a relationship or an event that happened to you that was horrible,” Laurie Singer, a board-certified behavioral analyst, tells Inverse.
But it’s debatable whether you can ever fully suppress your memories. In the movie, Mierzwiak instructs Joel to remove all objects associated with Clementine so he can avoid triggering memories of her, but even after the memory erasure, Joel still somehow feels drawn back to the beach in the Montauk where he first met her.
“I think that we can block out some things, but eventually, I'm telling you, it's gonna come out at some point. It could be 10 years down the road, it could be three months down the road, but it will come out eventually,” Singer says.
Kensinger agrees: “There is a difference between erasing a memory and reducing the likelihood that it pops into mind at an inopportune time.”
Interestingly, Kensinger suggests memory suppression may correlate with personality. It could be much easier, for Clementine to forget Joel compared to vice versa. Clementine appears to have completely forgotten Joel after her procedure, but Joel is still able to remember the beach associated with his memories of Clementine.
“It may be that whether it is easier or harder to suppress a painful memory depends on some characteristics of the person trying to forget — perhaps personality traits or cognitive abilities — as well as some characteristics of the event,” Kensinger says.
Should you try to erase your memories?
Singer thinks trying to completely suppress bad memories isn’t the healthiest coping mechanism after a breakup, or for anyone reliving past trauma.
“I don't think it's a good idea to forget because people tend to put themselves in a similar situation,” Singer says.
Indeed, at the end of the movie, Joel and Clementine find themselves back in the same situation they were prior to their breakup, and it’s suggested they will repeat the same patterns that led to their relationship and eventual breakup all over again.
“Like Joel, he doesn't know why he's experiencing these emotions when he goes to the beach,” Singer explains.
Instead of turning to a memory-erasing service, Joel and Clementine probably could have benefited from cognitive behavioral therapy to help them process and minimize negative emotions from a past relationship that could be affecting their daily lives in ways they don’t understand.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy is so important because it gives you the strategies and tools to help you take care of yourself and identify why you know what it is that's that's triggering a certain emotion.”
It’s possible to move on from a relationship without taking the drastic step of erasing a person altogether. After all, there are good memories along with the bad, and losing the latter also means erasing the former. We can’t isolate our brain from the pain of bad memories to the point where we forget the good as well — a lesson both Joel and Clementine painfully realize by the movie’s end.
Or, as Singer puts it, “Why would you want to erase every memory of a person?”