The movie “Memento”, produced in 2000 and directed by Christopher Nolan, focuses on the adventures of a person who suffers from anterograde amnesia. The essence of memory as a phenomenon, and the understanding of its mechanism and structure are crucial for the reading (Foster, 2002). Therefore, the reading can be illustrated by events of the film, and the happenings on the screen can be explained and analysed thanks to the findings of the book. Memory is extremely important for virtually everything we do, and no conscious and fore-planned activity would be absolutely impossible without this ability of mind. Not only human beings, but some higher mammals and other animals possess certain memorizing skills (Gottchalk, p.38).
There are two types of memory, classified by its origin: episodic and semantic, both of them are mentioned in one way or another in the movie. Episodic memory is presented in the context, and semantic memory is often referred to as “general knowledge”. In the movie, the main character, called Leonard Shelby (portrayed by Guy Pearce), displays episodic memory during two thirds of the screen time. His memory disorder does not allow him to keep his attention focus on any sort of thing for a long period of time, only for separate random pieces of time.
According to Forster, “memory plays a role anyway, whether or not we intend to learn” (p.78) – therefore, there is no direct dependency between memory and attention. This suggests that mostly we do not even control retrieval of memories, they just “pop out” in the mind whenever certain external influences trigger them. However, the movie illustrates and partly tries to prove the existence of indirect connection between attention and memory. The reason why Leonard experiences problems putting the puzzle of his memory altogether is that something prevents his consciousness from setting off those triggers (Pierre, p.56). This can happen for several reasons. One of those is the existence of a multiple personality disorder with the individual. Further progression of events in the movie proves that this hypothesis is correct. The murder is an act of revenge against the perpetrators who raped and killed Leonard’s wife. The mere fact of this crime is a severe psychological trauma that can happen to be inconsistent with mental health of a person. Not everyone is capable of enduring that, moreover, most people are probably not. There are various types of defense mechanisms that human psyche can offer, disintegration of personality is one of them. Having developed a multiple personality disorder, the main hero retains the resemblance of sanity, but experiences severe damage of his memory storage and retrieval mechanisms.
As Foster claims with reference to Plato, memories are, in fact, encoded, stored and retrieved. This is the basic set of operations that humans employ (however, this is not a rigid and finite list). Should an unexpected error happen at any of these stages, the process will be damaged (Golden, p.180). It is important to keep in mind that human memory is not a passive phenomenon (otherwise it would not be too different from a machine hard drive), it also performs processes of selection and interpretation, in other words, it displays dynamic activity and the ability to perform analysis.
The so-called Ebbinghaus rule (that Foster mentions while studying the memory gap problem) says that at first, forgetting is swift, but it gets increasingly slower. This is exactly what happens to Leonard when he manages to restore his memories at a more rapid pace. The correlation between the conscious and unconscious can help us understand the process of relearning and why this process is relatively easy (Zimbardo, p.89). Also, the meaning of repetition cannot be overestimated: repeating events and patterns help call the memories to life. We tend to forget things that find themselves unassociated with other notions, words and images in the conscious mind (therefore, they are considered by the unconscious to be “irrelevant” and “unnecessary”). Once the associative bind is formed, the new piece of data or knowledge is more or less securely embedded in memory. In Leonard’s case, the wires got crossed and the binds are in chaos.
Bartlett tradition in memory studies in the early 1930s turns the attention of the reader to conscious remembering. Unlike his predecessor, he focused mostly on the mechanism of remembering “sense-containing” information, not the intentionally random pieces thereof. According to Bartlett, “instead of reproducing the original event or story, we derive a reconstruction based on our existing presuppositions, expectations and our “mental set” (Radstone, p.190). He gives an example of how two fans of different football team would describe a game where one of the teams was devastatingly defeated. Furthermore, the report of the same event by the same person may be different depending on how much time had passed. This provides additional support for the constructivist approach and emphasizes the flexible and changeable nature of memories. People generally try to rationalize the things they try to remember – according to Foster, “remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience” (p.66).
Sensory memory filters out most of the irrelevant information and, guided by will-driven attention, transfers to the short-term memory everything worth retaining. After a certain number of repetition and some time (time must pass to secure the memory), long-term memory is formed – researchers also differentiate between explicit and implicit memory, describing the former as demanding conscious attention and the latter as heading immediately towards the sub-conscious. According to Nietzsche (referenced by Aldwin, p.109), “the existence of forgetting has never been proven: we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them to”.