Ashley Davies: Leave corners of your mind alone

IN the surreal 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a character played by Kate Winslet asks a mysterious company called Lacuna Inc to erase all her memories of a relationship that has gone wrong. On learning of this, her former boyfriend – Jim Carrey – is so devastated that he too enlists the services of Lacuna.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in a scene from "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". Picture: Reuters

Although the deliberate wiping out of specific memories is still only the fanciful preserve of the arts, scientists in America this week claimed to have found a way to reduce the painful impact of bad anamneses. Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois found that you need to focus on contextual elements of the recollection; think about what the weather was like, what the people involved were wearing, other conversations going on at the time, and these behavioural and neural mechanisms should help dilute the embarrassment, pain, shame or whatever it is that is causing distress.

With this in mind, I conducted some watertight scientific research of my own: I took to social media and asked my real and virtual friends what kind of memory they would delete. The answers were overwhelmingly to do with embarrassment and shame about their own mistakes (yes, yes, middle-class/First World problems). Some were about revulsion, and very few were about real tragedies or pain.

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I doubt that people would genuinely want to wipe out the memory of those in the first category, mainly because they make for great anecdotes. A loved one, who shall not be named here, remembers trying to keep up conversationally with an academic friend by saying that Vita Brevis was the name of St Augustine’s lover, when it is of course, as the rest of us classically educated souls all know, Latin for “brief life” and the name of a book of letters written to the saint by his unnamed paramour. He wanted to die.

Another friend, behaving so far out of character that it was almost performance art, threw a pint in the face of a poor man who in no way deserved it. It happened years ago and the memory still burns her. Me, I try to rewrite history in my own head in order to trick myself into believing that I didn’t once, as a teenager, offer an ambassador a feminine hygiene product from my handbag, thinking it was a roll of Polos (he smoothly quipped that he was trying to give up). I didn’t swear in that job interview, and I certainly never accidentally sent an unkind text to the person the text was about. Except I did, and my face still sweats with shame at the recollection.

Disgust is another big one. Several people mentioned a nasty segment on 1990s late-night youth TV show The Word called “I’ll do anything to be on TV”. One friend wishes she could forget having seen someone eat a worm sandwich on it. I’d like to eliminate the memory of a young man snogging an old woman for a leering audience’s entertainment. It was nasty, disrespectful and exploitative.

But what about the genuinely dark stuff you wish you could forget? Top of my list is a video of a man about to be necklaced in South Africa – broadcast on Zimbabwean television without proper warning. The terror in his widening eyes will never, ever leave my brain. The same goes for a booklet containing photographs of political torture victims that I saw as a child. Or the fearful, desperate face of a thin woman I recognised as a neighbour – a mother – who was working as a street prostitute.

There is an obvious reason our minds won’t let us forget certain things. How else would we learn from our – and others’ – behaviour (unless we have serious psychological issues or are deeply damaged from trauma, which, thankfully, does not apply to most of us, though is a matter of enormous concern in war-torn regions)? A sense of fairness is a valuable instinct that most of us have.

That’s where the Winslet and Carrey characters may well go wrong: having lost their memories of how and why they made each other miserable, they have learned nothing, so when they meet again, as they do, ostensibly as strangers, those mistakes they forgot can only be repeated.