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Memory Depiction in the Black Mirror Episode "The Entire History of You"

The reality of remembering and recalling every life event.

Key points

  • In a Black Mirror episode an implant known as a "memory device grain" allows people to remember every moment of life and share these memories.
  • Research shows it is not possible to have 100% accuracy in recall information (except for professional mnemonists or people with hyperthymesia.
  • Researchers have found the importance of forgetting can be a defense mechanism and to not saturate the mind with irrelevant information.

The Entire History of You is the final episode of the first season of the Netflix series Black Mirror. As with most episodes of Black Mirror, the setting of The Entire History of You is an alternative and dystopic reality based on the consequences of the development of a particular type of technology.

The Memory Device Grain

The technological basis of this episode is that most people have a memory implant device called a “grain." With this implant, everything that passes in front of a person’s eyes is registered. The grain works like a computer hard disk and provides a person with the capacity to store information and the possibility to recover all details registered with 100% accuracy. This is presented as a great benefit because we would not be susceptible to the formation of false memories (you can read about false memories here). Moreover, people could share their memories with other people and revisit them every time without lost or blurred mental images, but with the sharpness of a high-resolution movie.

In this context, the episode's protagonist is Liam Foxwell (played by Toby Kebbell), who suspects his wife, Ffion Foxwell (Jodie Whittaker), is having an affair with an old classmate. Without giving away any spoilers, the story revolves around Liam’s attempt to discover whether or not his wife is having an affair with this character from the tension involved in the shared memories provided by the grain. We can raise the questions: would it be possible for a memory implant device like this to exist? What would be the possible benefits of such a device? Is there a theory that can be used to understand memory in this way?

Models to Understand Memory

Starting from the last question, memory was considered an inscription place where experiences are registered for a long time. According to Aristotle, memory was similar to a block of wax in which all experiences were inscribed, just like the scribes of that age carved into the wax. This idea was reinforced by the experiments of Ebbinghaus (1885), in which he observed memory accuracy with the repetition of nonsense syllables. According to him, the “relations [experimental results] can be described figuratively by speaking of the series as being more or less deeply engraved in some mental substratum. To carry out this figure: as the number of repetitions increases, the series are engraved more and more deeply and indelibly.” This view is close to a notion that past experiences are registered in the mind and accessible similarly to reading a book.

This view of memory dialogues with another model for understanding memory, sharing the idea of storage space. This model is minimal for understanding human memory because it is mostly compared to computers’ storage devices. Differing from human memory, computer storage devices have a capacity limit for memory. When the hard disk is full, for instance, it is not possible to record any information. Another difference is the way a computer recalls information. In a storage device, it is possible to recover all the information with 100% accuracy.

There is a loss of information in human memory, details are not memorized, insignificant facts are not registered, and we give meaning to our memories, modifying them. It is, therefore, not possible to always have 100% accuracy in recall information (except for professional mnemonists or people with hyperthymesia–you can read about this here). In the episode, the grain allows people to have a capacity for memory similar to a hard disk computer.

The Importance of Forgetting

It is hard to say whether it would be possible for a memory device like that shown in the Black Mirror episode to exist. But it is important to highlight that, even with all the possible benefits that a long-term extraordinary memory could have for people, it is essential to forget. Forgetting is as important as remembering, as the researcher in memory Izquierdo defends. Ivan Izquierdo (2004), an important memory researcher, describes the story of Funes, a case of hyperthymesia. Izquierdo states that Funes’ super memory did not allow him to dwell for even a moment on a particular memory and analyze it. As a result, he could not generalize concepts or simply think. According to the author, “it is necessary to be able to forget, to generalize in this way."

Izquierdo (2004) lists a series of reasons that justify the importance of forgetting for memory. From a neurological approach, the author states that we often forget so as not to saturate our mind with irrelevant information, enabling a greater possibility for handling user information, especially with working memory (which allows for the immediate understanding of a text, a conversation, a movie, etc.).

Another important fact raised by Izquierdo is that forgetting is a kind of defense “mechanism,” which does not reconstruct traumatic memories or events that bring us certain feelings. The author calls this type of forgetting repression (Izquierdo, 2004). The most common type of forgetting is extinction, which deals with the non-recovery of information, usually details, from various moments in our lives (a movie we watched, a day on our vacation last year, a story we read, matter studied for the next day's test, etc.). According to the author, this type of forgetting is an art, highlighted by Harlow, McGaugh, and Thompson (1971) as the most notable phenomenon of memory.

Thanks to this forgetting, our memories are not literal records of events and materials but fragments that, through the influence of imagination, can be reconstructed in the present time, allowing for the creation of new materials and not a simple reproduction. In the alternative universe of the Black Mirror episode, perhaps it would not be a good idea to buy grain. Or, in the real world, it is better to keep forgetting.

References

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Dover.

Harlow, H. F., Mcgaugh, R. F., Thompson, & R. F. (1971). Psychology. São Francisco: Albion Publishing Company.

Izquierdo, I. (2004). A arte de esquecer: cérebro, memória e esquecimento. Rio de Janeiro: Vieira & Lent.

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