Did you ever see that movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet? It was pretty good and a little hard to follow, but basically it involved Carrey and Winslet's characters having their memories cleansed of each other after a bad breakup, or something like that.
Like all movies that involve the artificial manipulation of people's memories, Eternal Sunshine, which hit screens in 2004, has always been considered a work of fiction. But that was before Wednesday. On that fateful day, scientists from MIT announced that they had successfully changed bad memories to good -- and vice versa -- in the brains of a group of laboratory mice.
The report on the experiment, published in the highly respected journal "Nature," begins with the sentence, "The valence of memories is malleable because of their reconstructive property." I looked up the big words for us. Essentially, what they're saying is that positive or negative associations with a memory can be changed. The MIT scientists just figured out a way to do it artificially.
I hope I don't need to explain to you how big this is. I'd bet that even now, venture capitalists are scrambling to launch the first memory-manipulation centers like the one in "Total Recall" that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger think he's been to Mars -- only hopefully without big marbles up your nose or people trying to kill you.
I think it's also likely, as we touched on in last week's column, that evil robots are already plotting ways to manipulate humans' memories in order to make us all their slaves in some sort of Matrix-esque dystopian future. That's pretty much guaranteed. To be safe, you should destroy your Roomba right now if you haven't already. Trust me on that one.
But suppose scientists figure out a way to make memory manipulation work for humans. Would you do it? Would you let a doctor go into your brain and cleanse your mind of all those wedgies you got back in elementary school?
On that note, I'm not exactly sure how the memory manipulation would actually work. In Eternal Sunshine, memories are erased, but the MIT scientists said they changed the valence (positive or negative quality) of memories. Does that mean you wouldn't forget the wedgies but you'd convince yourself that you enjoyed having Aquaman Underoos yanked up your crack?
Thankfully, my psyche is relatively lacking in truly traumatic memories. There are some I'm not especially fond of, naturally, but for the most part I've been lucky. For others, however, whose minds may contain some horrific memories, I can see why the thought of changing the valence could seem very appealing. I mean, who wouldn't want to believe they enjoyed watching the Star Wars prequels?
But that just seems so wrong, doesn't it? We are our memories, even the bad ones. They shape us and determine the people we become. Without bad memories we may as well just all be Mormons.
There's also the safety issue to consider. For example, imagine you got mugged. That would be an awful memory, so let's say you'd have it changed. Now, given that you associate pleasant thoughts with the time you were mugged, you're much more likely to get mugged again. This, clearly, would lead to a vicious cycle of continuous memory manipulation and more muggings.
Furthermore, if we're going to be talking about memories in the context of film, we should note that never has a movie character's decision to mess with his or her memories been a good idea. Not once. I don't want to spoil Eternal Sunshine, but the plot sort of hinges on Carrey wishing he didn't choose to forget Winslet.
So I would argue that changing people's memories is a bad idea, and if we start doing it I predict that we will one day want to use the technology to help us forget that we ever started changing people's memories in the first place.
Besides, nature already has a couple of ways to help us forget unpleasant memories. The first one, as any drinker will tell you, is blacking out. When you're that drunk, any memories you would have of the times you can't remember would almost certainly be traumatic. That's why your brain cuts you off.
The brain's other defense against unpleasant memories, of course, is Alzheimer's disease, which may run in my family. I had more I was going to say about that, but I forgot what it was.
Todd Hartley ... um ... wait, what was I talking about again? To read more or leave a comment, please visit zerobudget.net.