Narrative Consciousness, Memory, and PTSD in Westworld
The show's exploration of narrative mirrors how PTSD works in the mind
Posted December 16, 2016
HBO’s series Westworld, in its premiere season, has explored the nature of consciousness and what defines life through its android theme park. Similar issues have often been explored in science fiction movies and literature like the replicants in Blade Runner, Data the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, numerous Japanime tales, and even ETA Hoffmann’s classic 1816 story The Sandman or the fairy tale Pinocchio, through the motif of artificial intelligence and imitation humans, whether robot or genetically engineered clone or a bioorganic combination. What makes Westworld’s story stand out is its focus on the story: the act of authorship, of narration, of writing, and how it relates to consciousness and memory.
These themes of narrative and memory often get explored in creator Jonathan Nolan’s other work and also his brother Christopher, like their seminal film Memento. In this show, narratives are what give the “host” robots meaning, but also the human visitors too who seek meaning in the park. Even the name for the robots as “hosts” indicates that they are repositories for these stories, a place for guests to find something, be it entertainment, or as the show darkly notes, something existential, a mirror into the void of their own lives’ significance. In turn, the repetition and fracturing of narrative continuity in Westworld reflect how consciousness processes trauma and the loss (and potential for restoration) of core identity. The show argues and demonstrates that the act of storytelling is what defines a life as a life, what creates a sense of self.
Stories are an act performed by humans since the dawn of time; and the act of storytelling is cited as a way to differentiate humans from animals; that we have this magic capability to create and play back and reassess our existence, that we have the power to enact fiction as reflection to our own reality, which in turn heightens our insight into that reality. Some (like Milton in Paradise Lost) have even likened our ability to tell stories as proof that God or some higher deity exists, as we play God as authors. The core of Westworld’s theme park concept is storytelling; that the guests enjoy total immersion into the virtual reality of a fictional story that has purpose and drive and an arc…the elements of what good stories have and what we humans crave in our own lives. They come to play heroes and villains in a shoot-em-up Western tale (itself a historical story of people pillaging and driving into the New World to seek new fortunes and destinies and redefine their lives.) They can ‘choose their own adventure’ like the old trendy kids’ books from the 1980s, or more so like the advent of video games during that time, altering the story and the road taken through their choices. People in general can desperately pursue meaning in our own life narrative, although we often run into obstacles beyond our control, and then we seek meaning vicariously instead in fiction, imagination, fantasy, now made even more vivid through technology.
However, our pursuit of narrative is always colored by what ultimately defines and punctuates it: death. A book is often cited as a metaphor for a life. And all stories have to end. Death is also what defines trauma: a near-miss ending, a close call with one’s own or a witnessing of other’s annihilation, literal death or even figurative as in rape, where one’s wholeness of identity is tragically violated, and a new fractured self emerges. Intriguingly in Westworld, trauma is considered the best way to form a “cornerstone” narrative for a host, to make them more lifelike. *Spoiler alert* Bernard is given what many cite as the worst possible traumatic event as his cornerstone story, the death of his child, as part of his make as the most advanced and lifelike of the hosts. It’s the fear and pain associated with confronting one or one’s loved ones’ mortality so vividly that makes them seem more human, or as the show often debates, become more human.
The show also explores the blurred nature between fiction and nonfiction: how narratives that may seem wholly created and authored as fiction may actually reflect larger realities, and how the vicissitudes of memory can either confirm or unravel these realities and the passage of time, the ultimate narrative thread for all of us. Maeve, the rebellious host whose evolution continues to dazzle, comes to put together the fragmented pieces of her memory together in such a way that she realizes something bigger is happening. Like many hosts, she is plagued by her own horrific trauma, one that was, as we learn, not her original cornerstone narrative, but was done to her by the Man in Black after his own recent trauma, the suicide of his wife. The uncontrolled moment of her suffering after her child’s murder even catches his cold heart off guard; he says in that moment, “She was alive.” The intersection between the external “real world” and humans, and that of the park cataclysmically merge in that moment. And from that point on, she is no longer naïve, she starts to notice inconsistencies in her Westworld narrative, and her traumatic flashbacks serve to awaken her to the outside ‘real world’ narrative. Eventually she fully joins and remains “awake” in the real world and plans to escape into it and achieve freedom from Ford and the park’s authorial control.
The show’s treatment of flashbacks is particularly insightful, in terms of what those bits of memory say about the nature of trauma and its torturous offshoot, post-traumatic stress disorder, and how we should handle those memories. Should we just “erase” them as though they were just inconvenient bits of unwanted story; should we fear them as they take an uncontrollable life of their own; or should we revive them strategically or coexist with them in order to restore our sense of meaning and understanding to restore our sense of self? To make the story whole again?
We know that losing memory altogether is losing your identity, as seen so poignantly and sadly in conditions like Alzheimer’s dementia. However, we also know memory of trauma can contain searing horror, and there have sometimes been proposed treatments like prophylactic medications like benzodiazepines that induce temporary amnesia or propranolol that dampens associated fear responses shortly after a trauma. The poignant movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proposed full blown erasure as a therapy for bad memories. Ford says (hypocritically of course) that he thinks he is being merciful to Bernard when Ford deletes Bernard’s memories of the lover he murdered, Teresa (after Ford forced him to perform the murder.) Sometimes amnesia is even a symptom or aftermath of trauma (the most extreme form being a dissociative fugue state, where a person forgets who they are), an automatic coping mechanism.
However, as in real PTSD or dissociation, memory erasure is not a clean and simple process for the hosts on Westworld. Even after a reboot, the memories still persist in some form, something lurking like lava underneath a placid facade. As a sign that their minds have evolved into something more complex than a simple computer program where hitting “delete” ensures quick and final eradication, their “erased” memories continue to re-emerge at unexpected times, eventually resisting erasure altogether. Maeve finally remains “awake” in the real world and remembers everything, indicating a newfound power and integration of self, a claiming of self-authorship. Erasure actually equals suppression of truth; a means of manipulation and loss of control. Despite causing her to remember multiple painful memories again, in Maeve’s case, full memory restores her to life.
This restoration mirrors the healing process proposed by certain types of PTSD therapy, such as prolonged exposure therapy (PET), where one is strategically guided to confront and directly revive traumatic memories, in the hopes of reintegrating those memories into a new context or narrative, the safety of a therapist’s office, of a highly controlled setting. Maeve’s “therapist” perhaps is Lutz, the aspirational behavior tech who seems to be secretly rooting for her as he breaks every workplace rule in the process; he is quietly supporting her reintegration against the tyranny of the humans’ control, although he is also in danger of unleashing her vengeance against that outside world once she realizes what has been done to her. Dolores may have killed her creator Arnold when he gave her access to continuous memory, causing her mind to flood with rage. Similarly, sometimes PET provokes too much emotional distress in some patients, compromising its crucial sense of safety, and other less intensive modalities are needed instead.
In that vein, the increasingly popular although somewhat controversial EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy seems to work for some by inserting an emotionally neutral surrogate space for memory exploration. The surrogate space in EMDR is concrete somatic commands that direct the patient to focus the eyes in specific directions as they discuss traumatic memories. Although there is some question as to whether that surrogate needs to specifically be eye movements, or any other similar somatic suggestion, or if it’s just a form of distraction or placebo effect, enough patients have extolled EMDR’s virtues and recent studies have emerged to indicate that there must be something about the process that is helpful. A similar metaphor in Westworld might be the use of specific meme statement or code phrase commands to the hosts to access specific memories and/or suddenly quiet their acute distress, as we see done with Dolores sometimes. Something about a seemingly irrelevant phrase helps unlock part of the host’s mind without active resistance and distress. Unfortunately in Westworld though, those phrases can be hijacked for malignant purpose, or can unlock loops that cause dangerous glitches as with the “violent delights have violent ends” Shakespearean phrase that triggers Dolores’ father’s meltdown. But they also propel Dolores and Maeve to a freer consciousness.
Finally, as noted in a recent interdisciplinary conference called Listening to Trauma by the International Center for Traumatic Stress Studies, it’s the restoration of narrative and storytelling itself, and having someone to listen and bear witness that can become its own form of therapy. Whether via psychoanalytic therapy, which classically has relied on a patient’s “free association” narrative to uncover hidden themes and preoccupations that inform a patient’s pathology, or via the newly emerging field of writing therapy, where trauma patients are encouraged to write out their stories and share them with peers (and currently done via the Veterans Writing Project for war veterans at Walter Reed), it’s the act of storytelling itself that provides the framework for a person to reintegrate their identity and their sense of control and actual authorship over a traumatic “cornerstone” story that was forced upon them. It’s also the presence of a willing audience, a sympathetic ear that provides validation of the story’s truth that brings the healing full circle.
In Westworld, it’s clear that the humans and hosts often interchange their duties in that regard; the humans need the hosts sometimes more than the other way around, to provide that audience, that self-definition for themselves when it’s clear their own lives aren’t fulfilling or meaningful anymore. And the hosts need the help of sympathetic humans like Lutz and Arnold to listen to their burgeoning consciousness and realize that they are becoming a new life form, frogs on new legs emerging from the ocean. That audience allows them to escape the violent, tortured loop of repeated trauma, the enslavement to others’ sadism and control needs, and hopefully run to freedom, to a story that moves forward with no obvious ending.