While moviegoers have long flocked to theaters in search of “mindless entertainment,” films such as Paycheck, The Butterfly Effect, and, most recently, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should prompt viewers to think twice about just what sort of mindless diversion they seek. While most of America has yet to hear the term neuroethics, Hollywood is fast familiarizing itself with the intricacies and implications of manipulating the human brain.
Neuroethics is a newly coined term for “the study of the ethical, legal, and social questions arising when scientific findings about the brain are carried into medical practice, legal interpretations, and health and social policy.” As neuroscience advances into bold new territory, increasingly complex questions of moral responsibility, human identity, and even the relationship between biology and religious belief will likely emerge. Though still in its infancy, neuroethical inquiry will, I predict, thus prove to be unsurpassed in importance.
The central conundrum pondered in Eternal Sunshine, as in Paycheck and The Butterfly Effect, is that of memory erasure. In Eternal Sunshine, the eradication of memories is carried out in a clinic called Lacuna, which serves clients who desire “a cutting-edge, non-surgical procedure for the focused erasure of troubling memories.” After her year-long relationship with Joel Barish dissolves, Clementine Kruczyinski chooses to wipe Joel from her memory. Distressed and angered upon learning of Clementine’s action, Joel follows suit, arranging for the Lacuna technicians to erase all recollections of Clementine from his mind. While undergoing the deletion process, however, Joel sequentially re-lives his moments with Clementine and finds that he desperately wishes to retain such memories. He is thus prompted to journey to places in his psyche where Clementine may safely reside.
While I found The Butterfly Effect (despite its gratuitous violence) to offer a more richly nuanced commentary on memory-related issues, Eternal Sunshine does raise both specific and more overarching considerations. First, I found it noteworthy that Joel’s recollections of Clementine were in effect “uploaded” while being siphoned from his memory such that they were accessible to the Lacuna technicians. Such a procedure would certainly raise new concerns about individual privacy and even stolen identity. Second, the movie seems to convey that there is a meaning behind human memories that may outlast the person or event remembered and that to tamper with these impressions may result in negative repercussions. Such a notion calls for well-considered reflection as such tampering, once possible, may actually be viewed as salutary in the context of certain more commonplace bioethical dilemmas. It seems, though, that human memory is, at least in some instances, designed as it is for a purpose. To wipe out one’s recollections of the implications of a particular experience—no matter how painful such memories may be—may prove to be terribly unwise. To assert that we know when such manipulation should and should not be permitted may prove to be more foolish still.
Though far from being true of the general populace, Hollywood is indeed grappling with neuroethical issues. The upcoming movie The Final Cut zeroes in on the use of memory manipulation techniques not to eradicate recollections of relationships gone wrong—but of humans gone wrong as manifest by sin. Surely, we must not sit back and allow the movie industry’s considerations and conclusions regarding neuroethical issues to outstrip our own.
 Steven J. Marcus (ed.) Neuroethics: Mapping the Field (Conference Proceedings: May 13-14, 2002, San Francisco, California). New York, NY: The Dana Foundation, 2002.
Linda K. Bevington, “Mindless Entertainment in the Neuroethics Era: A Review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Dignity 10, no. 3 (2004): 4–5.