Eternal Sunshine and the Science of the Spotless Mind

I have always been frustrated by the pervasive idea that the brain is like a computer.  In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, it became commonplace to suppose that the human mind was just an information processing machine, akin to the Dell or ASUS or Apple product sitting on someone’s desktop. The mind was a repository of data, with files, folders, items, and directories, which could be mapped on to the structure of a computer’s operating system more or less exactly.

This metaphor—if it’s a metaphor—has always struck me as being a little off.  For one thing, brains have been around for a lot longer than computers, and for most of human history the notion of an “information processor” as an analogue to human cognition would have made little sense to most people.

If anything, our concept of a computer or an information processing system more generally has been modeled on our understanding of our own minds, rather than vice versa.  As the historian Paul Edwards argued in his book The Closed World, both cognitive science and computer science grew up intertwined in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with notions about the human mind and computer programming mutually influencing each other.

Edwards also aptly noted that earlier generations had modeled their concept of the human body and mind on the technology of their times; a Freudian idea of psychology was influenced by the industrial age, with a hydraulic metaphor of thinking and emotions functioning like a hydraulic system, with pressures and flows. In the nineteenth century, people also imagined the human nervous system as working like the novel electric telegraph, a system of wires and impulses transmitting almost instantaneously through a huge system.

So it is little surprise that today we rethink ourselves in terms of the prevalent technology of our age: the computer, the microchip, the Internet.  Not surprising, but also arguably not very accurate or revealing.  This is part of the reason why I so loved the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on first seeing it in 2004, and watching it again in 2017.  The film has many powerful themes about love, personality, responsibility, human consciousness and agency, and fate.  But one of the things that stands out to me the most is the fundamental question the movie poses: is the human mind, i.e. the experience of any individual human, subject to a technological solution that “deletes” whatever is unpleasant or unwelcome?

To my mind, this question is at the heart of the film.  A duplicitous, if brilliant, grifter named Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) offers a service to people who have had hurtful and damaging experiences: if you undergo this procedure, we can electronically remove the memories that trouble you.  Bad breakup?  Gone.  Abusive parent?  Gone.  Sexual assault?  Gone.  PTSD in combat?  You get the picture.

In the film, of course—spoiler alert—a bygone couple named Joel and Clementine both undergo this procedure, since they cannot live with the impact of their traumatic relationship.

Who wouldn’t want to undergo this treatment?  To forget the bullies who marginalized and persecuted you in fourth grade, to erase the love interests who rejected you, or to eclipse the grief of losing a loved one to cancer?  Wouldn’t it be better not to remember?  Just excise it out, and it’s gone.

This premise suggests a profoundly flat and one-dimensional concept of the human experience.  Our lives are not just Mr. Potato Heads where you can remove one piece—an ear, a Groucho Marx nose, a goofy hat—and the rest remains the same.  But this is precisely what the mind-as-computer metaphor supposes.  We could invent a system where we go and surgically remove the files that include “humiliation in junior high PE class on March 29th, 1992 at 3pm” or “heartbreak when Clementine leaves you on November 1st, 2002.”  It could just be that easy, and that is what Dr. Mierzwak and his service offer in Eternal Sunshine.  Your brain is an operating system, a database that we can tweak and edit, without changing anything else.

I do not know much, if anything, about psychology, neuroscience, or computer science.  But I am a thinking, feeling human, and I know that experiences are not things that can just be deleted without affecting the warp and weft of the rest of one’s personality.  Getting rid of the memory of the mean bully does not change the fact that you were forever affected by that experience, anymore than getting rid of a bad breakup means that the feelings, thoughts, intuitions, and assumptions based on that experience no longer exist, are no longer active and real in your life.

This is what Eternal Sunshine portrays so brilliantly—and what I think has been least understood about the film’s significance.  On one level, it is a movie about the struggle of individuality against technology, as well as the ironic persistence of love in the face of seemingly dire prospects and irreconcilable differences.  The end of the movie suggests quite explicitly that Joel and Clementine will redo the same squabbles and frustrations they experienced before if they restart their relationship—almost like lab rats or automatons repeating the same behavior in a controlled experiment.  In that sense, the film’s conclusion is a gloomy one.

But I found the movie to be far more inspiring and optimistic.  Joel’s mind was not just a file directory where the experts—the “erasers”—could go in and get rid of this or that feeling or emotion or experience.  Somehow, during the process of the memory-erasing procedure, Joel becomes aware, as in a lucid dream, and begins to fight back.  He resists the encroachment of the erasers, and tries to shepherd his own mind’s version of Clementine in to some kind of safe preserve that will keep them away from their malevolent hunters.

Thanks to the dream team of director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, this interior odyssey is a wonder of surrealist filmmaking, with Joel becoming a little boy in his family’s Levittownesque suburban home, Joel and Clementine frolicking on a frozen New York beach, moving through memories and scenarios with sure-footed elan.  But the fact that they could resist, that the final kernel of the human spirit escapes and eludes the razor edge of technology is a thing of wonder.  There is a part of Joel that will not submit, will not forget—there is a part of him that cannot be deleted.

The same could be said of Clementine.  In another subplot of the movie, a villain played by Elijah Wood tries to woo Clem in a sort of sick variation on Groundhog’s Day, using her own life story and Joel’s to manipulate her. But even Clem, having already had the cognitive procedure, senses that something is wrong and vaguely remembers that the things Wood’s character is saying to her are familiar and, thus, unsettling.  There is a trace, a residue that endures.

What Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proposes—as one of, in my opinion, the finest and most moving films of the early twenty-first century—is not only that love conquers all, but that the individual human self conquers all.  A 50’s hairdresser helmet placed on your head cannot take away who you are, what you feel, what you believe, what you remember.  There is still a person remaining, outside of all the data and circuits and neurons.  That person can persist and prevail, in the face of the most powerful and invasive technology.  And in the case of Eternal Sunshine, it is as moving a triumph of love in the face of adversity as the white and black couple portrayed in the film Loving.  Against seemingly impossible and insurmountable forces, whether legal or technological, the human spirit endures.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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