On memory (part three): getting rid of memories.

Exposed brain and magpie.  By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.
Exposed brain and magpie. By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.

This is third in a series.  See parts one and two.

Not all memories are good, obviously.  I’ve done plenty of stupid things, blurted out plenty of awkward remarks in conversations, that I’d prefer to forget.  And those are harmless.  They might make me flush and feel retroactively embarrassed if I think of them at night, but, big deal.

Other people have seen far worse things than me.  Their memories, instead of minor self-consciousness, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): sleeplessness, headaches, stress biomarkers suggestive of shortened lifespan, proclivity toward substance abuse, etc.

PTSD is bad news.  Very bad news.  There’s no data yet on what causes it — why does one person subject to a horrible event pull through fine, but another contracts the nightmares?  There’s simply too much we don’t understand about the brain.

Mostly this essay is going to be about memory erasure — if we could consistently & specifically delete memories, that’d go a long way toward curing PTSD.  And I have a minor ulterior motive for slapping up a few scientific references for memory erasure: because misplaced memories are essential for the plot of The Ramayana, I tucked the concept into my book.  When I first wrote those passages, they were moderately speculative, but in the intervening years our scientific understanding has actually caught up appreciably.

MV5BMTM3OTA2MjcwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU2ODYyMQ@@._V1__SX1156_SY499_But first I wanted to give a small shout-out for the film Renegade.  Despite being a terrible cowboy film, Renegade is also the best depiction I’ve seen of using psychedelics to treat PTSD.  Which maybe sounds a little odd, but there are reasons to expect why it might work (as opposed to, say, attempting to use psychedelics to cure autism, which is every bit as ill-reasoned and abusive as it sounds).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be the leading non-pharmaceutical strategy to treat depression, sleep disorders, and other crummy brain states including PTSD.  The basic idea is that thoughts are reinforcing.  Thoughts you’ve had once are easier to have again, which is why studying works, why practice makes perfect.  But people can get stuck in ruts, looping through the same negative thoughts over and over.  CBT aims to replace those ruts with new virtuous cycles of helpful thoughts.

And that’s why psychedelics might make CBT more effective: the therapy will reinforce itself once it gets going, but actually jolting someone out of their initial rut seems difficult.  Mind-altering substances might provide a window of time during which a new cycle of thoughts can be more readily inoculated into someone’s brain.

This is speculative, of course.  FDA restrictions have made it difficult to conduct research using psychedelics.  Not many studies have been done so far, and a lot of our nation’s more illustrious research groups haven’t been involved; if your research is already going well, investigating psychedelics probably seems like a lot of hassle for little payoff.

BLUEBERRY
Still from Renegade.

But, let’s say you were a film director who’d been given a reasonably high budget to create an adaptation of a French comic book but instead used much of that money to take ayuhuasca hundreds of times in Peru … would you care that the ideas are speculative?  I think not.  Jan Kounen, who directed Renegade, certainly didn’t.  The scaffolding film is a cheesy western, but the central premise deals with overcoming the curse of a traumatic memory.  And, sure, the trippy CGI fractal swirls are often vaguely reminiscent of screensavers, but I appreciate the director’s ambitious attempt to depict visually what was happening in his protagonist’s mind as he reconciled himself with his past.  I think Renegade does a better job of depicting these unarticulated inner states than, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, or Dark City.

Even if psychedelics could help people with PTSD, though, it seems inconceivable that the drugs alone would be effective — the only reasonable mechanism I can come up with is that the drugs might make someone more receptive to CBT.  And the therapy takes time, takes a lot of concentrated effort from both patient and therapist, and probably seems like it’s not accomplishing anything for most of the initial sessions.  About a third of people with PTSD who have participated in CBT research studies drop out of treatment, and in general practice this number might be even higher.

It’d be nice if we could address the underlying traumatic memories directly.  Delete them specifically from someone’s brain.

And we can’t, obviously.  As per my previous post in this series, we can’t identify memories based on brain structure alone.  That rules out opening up someone’s head and attempting to physically ablate the offending thoughts… although it’s quite clear that physical disruption could remove memories.  Here’s the first paragraph of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm:

418tSpTGIdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I often have to cut into the brain and it is something that I hate doing.  With a pair of diathermy forceps I coagulate the beautiful and intricate red blood vessels that lie on the brain’s shining surface.  I cut into it with a small scalpel and make a hole through which I push with a fine sucker — as the brain has the consistency of jelly a sucker is the brain surgeon’s principal tool.  I look down my operating microscope, feeling my way downwards through the soft white substance of the brain, searching for the tumour.  The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.  All I can see in front of me is matter.  Yet I know that if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation to see what I have achieved.

We could delete memories, but given our current understanding of the brain we would be wrecking them at random.

What else do we know about erasing memories?

My favorite model is that memories, when used, seem to be replaced — details that weren’t included in an initial act of remembrance are often lost forever, which could indicate that a new memory of that remembrance does something like overwriting it.  And this would explain why our most vivid recollections are of things we seldom think about — as in Proust, a rare smell or sound or physical sensation can spur our sharpest memories.

Conversely, repeated remembrance seems able to dim a memory.  But there’s a trick — that whole problem with mental ruts.  Typically remembrance dims the initial memory, but encodes new information.  Whatever we think about while remembering becomes the memory (in part this seems to be why eyewitness testimony is so often wrong — poor police practice can easily allow a new, wrong memory to be encoded and reinforced before a trial).

To erase a memory, it would have to be recalled but not replaced.

One method for this is termed “thought substitution” — actively trying to make your mnemonic records incorrect.  If you try your darnedest to think about something else while remembering a traumatic event, you might be able to replace the traumatic memory with an innocuous thought.

…although (and this isn’t addressed in the paper I cited above), it seems possible that you would instead link horrible emotions to the previously innocuous replacement thought you tried to overwrite your trauma with.  I’m not sure whether there’s any reason to expect the transfer to be unidirectional.

Ravivarmapress_Rama_familyAnd, right, I first began researching memory because it is integral to the Ramayana.  There’s an incident of brutal sexual violence (perpetrated by the heroes!!), which, right, often results in PTSD.  And there are less horrific instances of memory loss throughout the myth — the central protagonist has to forget his divine origin in order to be sufficiently human (i.e., weak) to slay the erudite vegetarian ruler of Lanka, and the heroic monkey has to forget his powers so that he doesn’t destroy sacred temples in his exuberant rampages.

So I had to put memory erasure into my book, despite this being beyond the ken of contemporary science.  My assumption was, if memories are accessed at a time when there is pharmaceutical destabilization of firing synapses or even just inhibition of synaptic connection reinforcement, those memories might well be diminished.  The biggest problem, from a pharmaceutical perspective, is one of targeting: epigenetic phosphorylation seems to be essential to maintain long-term memories, and inhibition of the phosphorylase that maintains them (PKMζ) seems to erase memories, but we can’t deliver an inhibitor specifically to potentiated synapses.  Memory erasure is still science fiction — but doesn’t seem to be unreachably far away.

On Boyhood (the film), specifically the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.

2821098764_196c36c2cc_o
Image by Jennifer Gensch on Flickr.

One quick remark before I launch into this essay: I typically type these while N is playing at the YMCA, so I had to take several screenshots of the film before coming here so I could consult them alongside my other notes.  But Apple’s built-in screencapture won’t function if the DVD player is open; I’d never realized.  I wasn’t pleased.  To me, this is analogous to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals with aversive agents.  Doing extra work to intentionally reduce the functionality of a product, in the absence of any safety rationale, seems like a waste of time at best.

Sure, pharmaceutical abuse is a huge problem in the U.S.  But I don’t think that adulterating painkillers with compounds that can cause suffering is the right solution.  If we as a people decided to spend more money on psychiatric interventions, then great!  But spending money to add poisons to medicine, in ways that might harm legitimate users, is pretty crummy.

Apple’s attempt to prevent copyright violation is obviously much less bad.  Nobody’s going to become physically ill.  Just, like me, mildly frustrated.

Luckily the proscription was easy to evade: there’s a brief guide on the website “High School Blows”  that explains how to work around this.  And, right, that is why I wanted to type this preamble to today’s essay.  Because having an active verb that means “to be bad” is great!  I love the simplicity of sentences this offers.  Noun, verb.  Bam!  Two words and you’re done.  You’ve conveyed “The aforementioned thing is a rotten thing.”  And, better yet, you’ve also done it in a way that, linguistically, reveals a measure of political or ideological subversion.  I happily used the verbs “suck” and “blow” this way for years.

I don’t anymore, though.  Writing a book… well, no… it wasn’t until I was re-writing the book several times over… I had to think carefully about each word I was using.  I tried to learn a lot more etymology.  And I’m not keen on the idea of using a word that means, roughly, “is bad because it likely performs oral sex on men.”  The original etymology (circa 1970) was homophobic, and by now oral sex is sufficiently common amongst heterosexuals in the U.S. that you could reasonably interpret these verbs as having a misogynistic subtext as well.  So I no longer use them.

But I really want an action verb that means this!  My current fallback is to say “is rotten” in conversation whenever my mind proffers the verb “sucks,” but this is much less powerful.  If anybody out there has a good word for “is bad,” I’d love to hear it… my casual banter has been suffering for years now!

Okay.  That’s the end of my little diatribe.  Now on to your regularly-scheduled essay, a review of eleven seconds from Boyhood.

CaptureThere’s no dialogue in the segment of Boyhood that I’m planning to review.  To me, that’s a benefit — I felt that much of the film suffered from the fact that the dialogue was realistic to the point of banality.  There are some movies which, by watching them enough times, help you reach a point where you no longer need original thought in order to “converse” with people; you can instead rattle off movie quotes as they seem appropriate (Repo Man comes to mind here, along with several Monty Python movies, several Coen brothers movies).  But there are others, including several that have received very good reviews recently, wherein the dialogue never seems to rise above what a compulsive eavesdropper is likely to hear around town on any given day.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, for instance, had few scenes in which the dialogue felt crisp.  That’s part of why I couldn’t feel invested, especially because the film mainly seemed to convey braggadocio from the director to his audience as regards his manipulation of Adéle Exarchopoulos.  As though the director were saying, this is a human being, sure, but I can make her do whatever I want.  If he wanted another close-up of her eating in order to reinforce a message about her voracious appetites, bam!, he got it.  A close-up of her crying, snot-snerking face puffy and spasming?  Bam!  A voyeuristic scene of her naked frame grinding her pubic bone into an S4-symmetry-operated proxy of herself?  Bam!  And sparkling dialogue only during the scene in which the director refers to his own stand-in as a genius for attempting to depict female desire.

Or, earlier, there was The Dreamers, wherein the dialogue only shimmered when the American exchange student was remarking upon coincidences between the size of a cigarette lighter and the dinner table (which was a great scene, to be fair — “I mean, it really fits anywhere.  Look.  See?  I was noticing that the more you look at everything, this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes” — but I felt that the movie’s dialogue never again rose to those heights).

In Boyhood, the only time I felt the dialogue was even trying to be fancy was at the end, when the psilocin-modulated collegians have a brief conversation that reflects back on the nature of the project: “It’s constant, the moment, it’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

But even this stab at philosophy falls short of, say, the brief dialogue during the credits of Boxtrolls (which, right, that is a brilliant scene.  Definitely worth seventy seconds of your life).

In fact, most pieces of the film seem to have been done better elsewhere.  For the father figure providing relationship advice I’d substitute Roger Dodger, for the kid interacting with his mother I’d substitute Transamerica, for a lot of the suburban strife and feeling out of place while a seemingly-ordinary childhood drags on I’d substitute David Sedaris’s early memoirs.

The only uniquely memorable set of dialogue, to me, was the speech given by Ethan Hawke in which he admitted that, nope, our world has no elves, but we have other creatures that would sound equally magical and bizarre if not for the fact that we know they exist.  That seemed like pretty good fathering and was a catchy set of lines.

And, sure, it was a very cool special effect to have a single actor play this role as the character ages over a decade, but a lot of the press I read about the film lauded it much more than other films with cool special effects.  In a way, that makes me think of the Matrix movies.  All three of them had cool effects, but I doubt many people ever re-watch the latter two: the cool effects are all those two movies have going for them.  Whereas the first actually has a soul beneath its shiny exterior.

With Boyhood, most of the film doesn’t seem impressive if you take away the special effect.

In fact, my favorite review of the movie as a whole was given to me by a running buddy: “While I was watching it, I kept thinking there was about to be a car accident.  But the accident never came.”  Even though he’d told me that, I too kept expecting a car accident; all those portentous remarks about seatbelts!  And drivers were rarely sober.

Immediately after I finished the film, I sent an email back to him: “Maybe the car wreck happens after the credits, when they’re driving back to campus.”  From the dialogue, it didn’t seem as though they had a sitter; maybe you’d argue that the woman sitting next to the protagonist at the end was not on psilocin because her eyes weren’t dilated, but the protagonist’s weren’t either for that scene.  Doesn’t seem like they loaded up an eyedropper with scopolamine for the verisimilitude.

Still, I was thrilled to be watching the movie for the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.  Those are great.  And, you know, maybe that’s enough.  Like, the first time I read Jack Kerouack’s On the Road I spent most of the book thinking it was nothing special… and then I reached this passage:

I was getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Denver Doll called me one night and said, “Well, Sal, guess who’s coming to Denver?”  I had no idea.  “He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine.  Dean bought a car and is coming out to join you.”  Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the West.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.  There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car.  Everything was up, the jig and all.  Behind him charred ruins smoked.  He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive.  We made hasty preparations for Dean.  News was that he was going to drive me to Mexico.

“Do you think he’ll let me come along?” asked Stan in awe.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said grimly.  We didn’t know what to expect.  “Where will he sleep?  What’s he going to eat?  Are there any girls for him?”  It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.

That last sentence is so incandescently beautiful that I forgave all the excesses that had come prior to it in the book: this beautiful sentence needed the book’s shambling heft to exist.  Without context it looses some of their power; I’m not even sure that passage will seem appropriately beautiful when slapped up on a website like this.  Likewise, it’s possible that the eleven seconds I loved of Boyhood could not have existed without the rest of the movie.

At this point in the film, the protagonist is driving across Texas to attend college: despite anything you may have read about the infantilization of modern college students, this marks his transition from boyhood into adulthood.  The song “Hero” by Family of the Year is playing.  Seems like an excellent choice of music; especially the line “…holding down a job to keep my girl around and maybe buy me some new strings…” just before he opens the passenger side door to his truck in order to retrieve his camera.  Indeed, it’s a scuffless Canon EOS in stark contrast to the battered Toyota he’s driving.  I think the combination of hearing that line and seeing his camera reveals a lot about the kid’s: like the singer, he’s been working in order to afford the tools needed to pursue his art.

In fact, this scene does more to reveal his personality than the vast bulk of the movie.  Lots of kids drink beers when their friends are drinking, lots of people rant about the way modern technology exploits evolutionary quirks of our brains, lots of people (unfortunately) are put in a position of rebelling against too-strict father figures while failing to make a real connection with a yearned-for, insufficiently-strict biological father.  But this scene displays a measure of loneliness and solitude in his pursuit of art, and it changes the way a viewer interprets his earlier dark room conversation when he claimed that he often spent whole weekends out shooting pictures.  This scene lends that statement credibility, and demonstrates what those weekends might have been like.

I do wish, if the kid was meant to be shown developing into an artist, that we’d more often seen him viewing photographs, rather than taking them.  To the best of my recollection, the only photographs taken by other people that he looks at are lingerie advertisements when he’s six, online pornography when he’s nine or ten, and then a picture of a cute pig on Facebook when he’s seventeen.  I think it sends a bad message about what the process of making art is like to exclusively show him producing art, never viewing it.  In my own life, I’d bet that I spend some seventy percent of my work time reading, at least two-fold more time than I spent writing.  And, sure, it’s unrealistic to expect a bildungsroman to serve as an instructional guide, but I still dream (I should probably be using the word bildungsfilm here instead, but to my anglicized ears that sounds less cool).

The protagonist begins his photography session by taking a picture of a perfectly boring rusted lamp, but by the time Family of the Year are singing about “secrets from our American dreams” he has moved on to a loftier goal: snapping a picture of the fire hydrant standing outside the Roadrunner Deli.

dvd 2.34.20This hydrant is red, with a chipping coat of paint and some yellow flecks vaguely reminiscent of scattered pollen covering its domed bonnet.  It’s a dry barrel hydrant, which surprised me; although I’ve never been to Texas, the impression I have is that the place is hot enough that it would freeze rarely, if at all.  The barrel itself is also much more slender than the squat, round hydrants present in most of the urban and suburban places I’ve lived.  I’m not sure if that is in any way related to the potential flow-rate of the hydrant; to the best of my knowledge, a solid-red hydrant with a coat of paint as old as this one’s appears to be does not indicate a sub-500 gallon per minute flow rate.  Modern hydrants, especially in more populated areas, generally have a bonnet color that doesn’t match the rest of the hydrant and signifies the water pressure it has access to.

And then, after Family of the Year portentously sings “baby needs some protection,” we see the image of the hydrant from the protagonist’s perspective.  It’s a fine image: the hydrant is posed at a jaunty angle in the center of the frame, as though it were ready to stroll forward along the path between scruffy cacti and desiccated tree stump.  The outlet cap is facing the viewer at an angle, the lower standpipe juts up out of the ground, the chain dangles down out of the viewer’s sight.  Its surroundings also give a sense of the loneliness of this place, although fire hydrant photographs can be deceptive that way: because most people capture hydrants in close-ups, they often appear removed from the bustle of life.

Then he leaves, off to college, and we next see him pulling into the parking lot of his dorm.  Walks through the hallway, the song fades into humming, ambient noise of incipient freshman gabbing rises and takes over the audio.

So, really, it’s only the eleven seconds when he was actively photographing a fire hydrant that filled me with joy.  But I think it’s fair to ask, is that enough?  Does one beautiful passage justify a book?  One beautiful scene justify an entire movie?

I don’t know.

Here, a treat!  A couple more hydrant photos!