A biological breakdown of just how fragile your memory really is.
Our Movie Mythbusters series answers the age-old question, “Okay, but could that actually happen in real life?”
Before Christopher Nolan was churning out superhero hits like the “Dark Knight” trilogy and big-budget mind-benders like “Inception,” he released 2000’s “Memento,” a screwy thriller about one man’s journey to avenge his wife’s death. The catch: Leading man Leonard’s short-term memory evaporates every few minutes.
After its release in 2000, the film raked in praise from the Hollywood and scientific communities alike. It was nominated for Academy Awards and neurobiologists lauded it as “close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory.” That’s all very convincing—but could somebody with a memory condition like Leonard’s (portrayed by Guy Pearce) operate as functionally as he does in the film?
A word on structure
Though there’s little virtue in rehashing the entire plot of the film, revisiting the structure will help us later, when we’re deciding whether Nolan’s whodunit holds water. It’s a little tricky to understand, so bear with me.
The film is shot partly in color, partly in black and white. The black and white scenes are shown chronologically. That is, the first black and white scene you see is the earliest event to take place within the narrative. Each subsequent b&w is presented in order.
The color scenes are shown in reverse chronological order. That means that as the movie progresses, each color scene takes place earlier within the narrative than its preceding color scene.
The alternation between color and black and white shows the events leading up to a catalyzing event (which takes place chronologically in the middle of the movie’s narrative but is shown at the very end of the film), as well as the aftermath of that event. Both the color and black and white narratives meet in the narrative middle and conclude the movie. Got it?
A name for what ails Leonard
What medical condition is our protagonist, Leonard, dealing with in the film? “Amnesia” is too broad a term to describe it. In Yinnette Sano’s paper for Bryn Mawr College, she points out that amnesia refers to a loss of memory, not of identity. Leonard knows who he is, and he’s retained enough long-term memories to know that somebody murdered his wife. It’s the short-term memory loss he suffers after her killing that gives him trouble. So what exactly is Leonard’s short-term loss?
Leonard’s condition is called anterograde amnesia, which affects a person’s ability to form new memories. But this is where things get a little bit tricky: It seems Leonard can form new memories, as we see him taking Polaroid shots and writing valuable bits of information on them during the color sequences. He does this in order to preserve memory that he knows will dry up momentarily. But if he can’t form new memories, how does he even manage to annotate his snapshots? (Or better yet, tell the tattoo artist what he wants inked on his torso?)
According to Daniel Pendick in his 2002 column “Memory Loss at the Movies,” Leonard’s condition is portrayed accurately in that his anterograde amnesia prevents him from creating memories of “facts and events.” Pendick explains that this type of memory is referred to as “declarative memory,” and is responsible for remembering “what happened to you yesterday, the name of someone you met on the street, the town you just arrived in the previous day.”
While Leonard’s brain fails to record declarative memory, what it can do is record “working memory,” or the moments- to minutes-long memory required to have a conversation or dial a telephone. Or, in this case, to annotate a Polaroid.
Pendick describes memory as a series of bins. The working memory holds those immediate experiences until they can be placed in the short-term bin (which Leonard is missing). The short-term bin is where stuff goes until it can be “consolidated” into long-term memories. During the black and white sequences, Leonard had no problem with any of the bins. But during the color sequences, it’s as if somebody removed that middle, short-term bin from the assembly line and nobody told the foreman. The working memory gets dumped to make space and simply falls off the line, never making it into the long-term bin.
Film v. science
Sure, anterograde amnesia is a real thing. And it might have even been portrayed accurately in “Memento.” But could somebody with this condition really do what Leonard does?
Short answer: Seems like it, yeah. When The Royal College of Psychiatrists “Minds On Film” blog explored the accuracy of “Memento,” it pointed to real-world experiments that verify Leonard’s techniques in combating his condition:
There are many different rehabilitation techniques used to help individuals with anterograde amnesia. Some involve the use of compensatory techniques like mobile phone alerts or written notes and diaries, others consist of intensive training programmes involving the active participation of the person with their family members. Work by clinical neuroscientists in Cambridge, UK, comparing written versus visual aids for memory retrieval in memory impaired individuals, has begun to suggest that the recording of a pictorial, person-centred view of events, using a wearable camera, whose images are re-viewed later on a computer screen, may be an effective way to improve autobiographical recollection and one that is superior to a written diary.
Seems like Leonard hit all the right notes.
Pendick does express skepticism, pointing out that most anterograde amnesia is caused by stroke, disease or lack of oxygen. Leonard’s is caused by blunt trauma to the head, which Pendick admits can sometimes happen. So we’ll give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here.
The only major qualm Pendick raises that might bust this myth is the fact that, “People with anterograde amnesia often cannot remember the trauma that caused their memory loss as well as some memories of events just before the trauma.”
Considering the scientific community’s overwhelming appreciation for the film, I don’t think either of Pendick’s hesitations are enough to write off the accuracy of “Memento.” Hats off to Nolan on this one.