The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Amygdala

In the hit sci-fi film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two eccentric ex-lovers, Joel and Clementine, opted to undergo a quasi-medical procedure in order to erase one another from their memories. In the movie, the fictional medical company Lacuna Inc. performed this procedure by setting up their advanced memory deletion equipment (a combination of technology reminiscent of an EEG and a CAT scan) in Joel’s apartment. The Lacuna Inc. technicians had Joel remove all items in his household that would potentially prompt memories of Clementine’s existence in order to ensure effectiveness of the selective memory erasure. Joel was then hooked up to some cranial electrodes and induced into a comatose state while the Lacuna Inc. technicians targeted, tracked, and deleted his memories of Clementine on a screen. The theory in the movie is that by eradicating the “emotional core” of a memory, the memory itself eventually degrades.

In order to portray the appeal of such a procedure, the creators of Eternal Sunshine produced a short commercial for Lacuna Inc. as a bonus feature:

Ever since this film was released, countless people around the world have contemplated the seemingly impossible prospect of selectively erasing their own painful memories: “Would it be worth it?” “Would the lessons learned from these memories be erased, too?” “Isn’t that a little extreme?” “Would I regret it–oh wait.”

While such medically induced selective amnesia hasn’t yet been successfully developed, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have achieved a very similar phenomenon. By targeting protein synthesis in the amygdala, the part of the brain that associates emotions (particularly fear) with past experiences, it has become possible to remove an individual’s negative emotional reactions that are linked to an unpleasant memory, while still keeping the memory itself fully intact.

This procedure has especially promising implications for treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): a psychological disorder associated with extreme anxiety that arises from intrusive memories of a traumatic event. Getting rid of the emotions associated with memories of the event(s) that triggered the onset and recurring symptoms of a patient’s PTSD would theoretically be very helpful in helping him effectively confront the unpleasant memories without having to re-experience the emotional trauma [1].

Despite the good that may come out of emotional dissociation techniques, one wonders if this pending technology could be abused. I personally believe that Joel and Clementine abused this technology in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Though break-ups are indubitably emotionally painful, their distressful impacts are not long term. Unless one’s ex played a role in the onset of his or her PTSD, I don’t believe that erasing memories (or even emotional associations) of an ex-lover would be economical or sensical. Clementine and Joel’s rash decision to delete one another from their memories made for a great romantic sci-fi plot, but in reality, this decision would likely be considered immature. Breaking up is a life experience that can help you grow and learn how to cope with the inevitable disappointments life will throw at you. If you alter memories of a relationship, how will you ever learn from it?


[1]: Eternal Sunshine? Daily Mail

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