Memento’s lessons



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Memento’s lessons

"Memory's unreliable…Memory's not perfect, it's not even that good. Ask the police. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff, they collect facts…They make notes, and they draw conclusions. Facts, not memories, that's how you investigate….Look, memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car, and memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."


  • Memory is subjective. Memory is subjective, not in the sense that ‘anything goes’, but rather in the sense that there is an agent who reconstructs his/her own memories. As viewers, we are told the story only from Leonard’s point of view, there is no bird’s eye view of what is really going on. [Additional material: see director’s comments].

  • Memory is unreliable. As viewers, we get the sense of having being told a story by the most unreliable of narrators. Leonard himself gets this message across in the quote at the top of this handout [Additional material: scene of Leonard & Teddy eating lunch].
  • Memory is an active process of reconstruction. Memories need to be interpreted and in the process of interpretation they are often distorted. The memory system is not like a tape recorder –a veridical if yet impoverished record of reality-- but rather it is more like a mirror that provides a somewhat distorted image of reality. [Additional material: scene from Capturing the Freemans; article on memory metaphors by Koriat & Goldstone; implications for witness testimony by Reisberg].


  • Memories are distorted by cognitive and motivational biases; false memories can sometimes be implanted. Did Leonard used to give his wife insulin shots or did he merely pinch her thigh? Leonard remembers pinching his wife’s thigh, but after Teddy ‘implants’ the idea of an insulin shot, he misremembers holding a syringe. Alternatively, Teddy may be telling the truth in which case Leonard is the one distorting his own memories to evade some uncomfortable truths: Was there really a Sammy Jenkins? Through these and other examples, the movie illustrates that that our memories are affected by our wishes, our beliefs, and our cognitive strategies [Additional material: last scene of Memento; Psychological Science paper on memory for events in the Iraq war].

  • Source memory is particularly vulnerable. With the help of his notes and pictures, Leonard is capable of accessing certain facts of his past. But he has no clue about the source of those records. When reading ‘don’t believe Teddy’s lies’ Leonard will not remember the context in which he wrote that statement. Were Leonard to write a message ‘don’t trust Natalie’, as encouraged by Teddy, he would fail later to remember that it came from an untrustworthy source. The point illustrated by these examples is that, while we may remember a specific fact we often fail to recall the context in which we learned it, the person who told it to us, and whether we saw it or we imagined it. These are all examples of source memory deficits. Children and patients with frontal lobe lesions are particularly susceptible to these biases, a topic that lies heavily in the debate on children as witnesses. Source memory is also more susceptible to healthy aging than other types of memory.
  • Metacognition is an important aspect of memory.“You have to have a system”. Leonard has a clear knowledge of his weakness (metacognitive knowledge) and organizes his actions accordingly (metacognitive regulation). He knows he will not remember, and thus he writes things down. Leonard is also sophisticated in discriminating which events to record and which to ignore (except for a single big omission that end up carrying fatal consequences). Leonard is systematic in his record keeping and this helps him a great deal. Once he decides to store a piece of information, he is organized about ‘where’ to put it. For example, his reminders are based on their importance and how stable they are (tattoo for important things that remain stable, photos for not so important, etc.). Without a system to decide what to store and how to organize it, we are not efficient learners. Once again, children and patients with frontal lobe lesions are at a disadvantage in this aspect of memory. This is illustrated in this example by developmental psychologist John Flavell: “Quote here” TO ADD.


  • Knowing’ and ‘remembering’ are different aspects of memory. Natalie asks Leonard to tell her about his wife and he provides a somewhat scripted description of her. Natalie replies: “Don’t just recite the words. Close your eyes, remember her”. Leonard smiles, shuts his eyes, and sees images of his wife smiling, eating. In voice over, he says: “You can only feel details. Bits and pieces which you didn’t bother to put into words. And extreme moments you feel even if you don’t want to. Put it together and you get the feel of the person”. This scene nicely illustrates the difference between remembering an episode and simply knowing it. When we remember something, we retrieve the context in which the memory has been acquired, its rich visual imagery, and the emotions associated with it. [Additional material: scene of Memento; autobiographical memory, Marcia Johnson, Moscovitch).
  • Implicit and explicit memory are dissociable systems. The movie has two narratives: a main narrative that runs backwards and a black-and-white narrative that runs forward. In the black-and-white scenes, Leonard describes the case of Sammy Jenkins, a patient with lesion to the hippocampus who has lost the ability to form new memories. Leonard tells us that ‘There would be this look in his eyes each time that I would see him’ -- as if Sammy had implicit facial recognition-- ‘but Sammy would claim he did not recognize me’, a lack of explicit memory recognition. Sammy should have learned through classical conditioning to stay away from punishing events such as the electrified blocks because that type of memory is dissociable from the explicit memory we call ‘remembering’ and ‘knowing’. Similarly, Leonard learns through repetition to follow certain procedures such as looking at the drawer next to the bed. Procedural memory is dissociated from explicit memory. Although Leonard calls it “doing by instinct’ we should not use the term ‘instinct’ for these examples, as they are learned rather than endowed.


  • Short-term memory and long-term memory are separate systems. We are told that Sammy liked commercials because they were short and he did not like movies because he would lose track of the plot. Sammy could do the most complex things as long as he did not get distracted. Leonard could do a lot of complex things -- having a conversation, driving a car-- provided he did not get distracted. But a few seconds of distraction were sufficient to make their working memory fade. On this, we are not different from Leonard and Sammy. But unlike them, we are also capable of encoding things into long-term memory, thus remembering things after our working memory has become engaged on something else (the distraction event). Leonard and Sammy don’t have that luxury due to their long-term memory impairment. Get Sammy to watch TV for a few seconds and he will not remember that he has already given his wife the insulin shot. Get Leonard distracted for a few seconds as Natalie callously does, and he will not remember having hitting her (scenes here). This independence of short and long-term memory is summarized by Leonard when talking to the hotel clerk: “I know who I am, I know all about myself, I just, since my injury I can't make new memories. Everything fades. If we talk for too long, I'll forget how we started and next time I see you I'm not gonna remember this conversation. I don't even know if I've met you before.”
  • Long-term memory is enhanced by understanding of the story line. Memento effectively recreates in viewers the experience of long-term memory deficit by running the plot backwards. In the absence of a story plot, viewers have difficulty understanding how the scene they are seeing fits within the larger context. Therefore, encoding into long-term memory suffers for two reasons:


    • First, viewers don’t know what is important and should be stored, and what is detail and can be ignored. Watch the movie again and you will have no trouble noticing how insistent Teddy is about getting the keys to Leonard’s car (of course, it has 200 grand in the trunk!). But you probably didn’t notice this ‘detail’ the first time around. By not understanding what is important and what is not, our ability to encode selectively has been compromised.

    • Second, the ability to create effective retrieval cues is impaired. Since we don’t understand what is going on, we have a hard time tying new information to our existent body of knowledge. By running the plot backwards, the director has created a ‘virtual lesion’ in our long-term memory abilities. (see example of story without title ADD THIS)

  • Working memory is affected by distraction. Another reason why running the plot backwards is so disruptive is that it forces us to integrate information across delays of a few minutes. Such delays are long enough for information to fade from our working memory. Take for example these two scenes from the beginning of the movie:

    • In real life chronology, (1) Leonard leaves his room at the Discount Inn, engages in conversation with desk manager Burt, tells him about his condition, and asks Burt to let him know whenever Teddy shows up. As he is saying this, (2) Teddy walks into the hotel lobby and (3) they both leave in Leonard’s car. Even someone with poor long-term memory would have no trouble following this ‘123’ sequence.
    • Instead, as viewers we see (2) Teddy walking into the hotel lobby and (3) both men leaving in Leonard’s car, followed by (1) Leonard explaining his condition to Burt and (2) Teddy walking into the hotel. To follow this ‘2312’ sequence requires viewers to integrate information across a distraction period during which working memory content is fragile. In effect, we have become just like Leonard, who cannot hold in mind what Natalie told him once he gets distracted looking for a pen, or Sammy, who cannot remember the insulin shot when distracted by TV.


    • Although somewhat extreme, the demands posed by the movie are analogous to many everyday life situations such as driving while talking on the cell phone. Situations like these require sustaining information in working memory while distracted by another task. Thus, the sense of effort we experience in the movie may be similar to what patients with early Alzheimer’s disease experience in tasks we take for granted. As their long-term memory decreases and their working memory becomes more susceptible to distraction, these patients are bound to feel like we felt watching Memento, even in less demanding situations.

    • One of the reasons why Memento’s story line is so hard to follow is that viewers have to reorder the sequence of scenes. Researchers have developed tasks to similarly tap this executive aspect of working memory. For example, subjects may be asked to listen to a string of letters and to reorder them in alphabetical order. The ability to hold information in working memory in those tasks correlate with a variety of cognitive abilities, including reading comprehension, reasoning, problem solving, and general intellectual ability.
  • Memory is not only in the head but also in our surroundings. Leonard uses all sorts of artifacts --notepads, tattoos, pictures-- to help him remember things. The same is true for all of us. We make lists for the grocery store, we use electronic calendars, and we store information in our computers. Einstein is famously quoted as saying that he did not want to waste time memorizing things that could be found in books. The usefulness of these artifacts is beyond dispute. This is summarized by director Christopher Nolan in an interview " in going through making the film, we went through an intense process of questioning our own memories and the way it works, and I sort of came out the other side, very much less confident of the way my memory worked than before, and then the script and Leonard's systems and the way the plot points come together relating to memory, they are just extrapolations of the way I try and help my short-term memory [this is long-term memory] myself, you know, I write phone numbers with my hand and I take notes, and…" More controversial are claims that these memory aids or artifacts should be considered part of the memory ‘system’ rather than as merely useful cues. This view has been argued both by psychologists and philosophers proponent of what is called ‘situated cognition’ (see Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. MIT press; Andy Clark Memento revenge).


  • Confidence is not a good way to judge whether somebody is accurate or not. Leonard is quite sure of a few things: ‘he has not killed other people before’, ‘Teddy is the one’, ‘his wife did not survive the attack’. As viewers, we know that some of these claims are false. As it turns out, research shows that memory confidence does not always correlate with memory accuracy. For example, people may be quite confident about details of certain events (the 9/11 attack) even when their memories are wrong. This is not to say that there is no correlation at all between accuracy and confidence. Some people are confident and correct. And the likelihood of being correct is somewhat increased for items we are confident about (Is Washington the capital of USA? Is Rio de Janeiro the capital of Brazil?). But research shows that the correlation is not that good. This has important implications for eyewitness testimony.

  • You won’t remember what you don’t see; you won’t see what you don’t pay attention to. In one of the black-and-white scenes we see Sammy Jenkins in the asylum, someone walks by in front of the camera, and for a split of a second Sammy’s face is replaced by Leonard’s. A nice example of change blindness. (See related research Levin & Simons).

  • Memento provides several strategies for enhancing our memory abilities:

    • Decide what you need to remember. As Leonard says:“you have to have a system.”
    • Pay attention and keep a record. Not being able to focus, being distracted, having attention difficulties impairs memory. This is due to a failure in encoding.


    • Use memory aids. You may not want to have a tattoo reminding you to call your mother for her birthday, but any other artifact is up for grabs.

    • Develop routines. doing things in a similar way is a good way to reduce the demands of your explicit memory system, and to offer it useful cues for retrieval.

Some misinformation about memory in the movie. While most of the information about memory in the movie is correct, there are a few artistic licenses that need clarification.

  1. There is no such a thing as a psychological vs. biological distinction. At least from the point of view of materialism endorsed by most psychologists, all mental processes have a neurological substrate.

  2. Leonard talks about having a short-term memory problem when, in fact, he has a long-term memory problem. Long-term memory includes not only things that happened a long time ago, but also things that happen just two minutes ago.

  3. Leonard also says he does not have amnesia, but Leonard does in fact have amnesia (a long-term memory deficit). Leonard is thinking that by amnesia we mean an individual who forgets who he is, has no memory of his own life and his own personality. However, most patients with amnesia tend to have anterograde amnesia, which is an inability to form new memories from the time of the accident (retrograde amnesia is the inability to remember things that occur before the accident)

Some important times:

  • 23’ memory distortion

  • 27’ ; 32’ black & white case

  • 70’ short-term memory: Leonard is trying to write down what natalie told him
  • 99’ Example of Change Blindness.




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