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9 classic movies about memory manipulation, and how they inspired real neuroscience

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Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInception. In today’s talk, MIT neuroscientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu admit that their latest study Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu: A mouse. A laser beam. A manipulated memory. Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu: A mouse. A laser beam. A manipulated memory. — in which they located a specific memory in a mouse’s brain and designed a system to activate and deactivate it at will — might remind people of these movies. And there is a good reason for that: because the experiment was, in part, inspired by them.

“We began touching on these ideas mainly because all of us are huge fans of movies like Inception … For me personally, looking to Hollywood is a great source of questions,” Ramirez said in a recent interview with Fast Company Labs, about the study he describes in this talk. “I feel that Hollywood is a repository of all these fantastic ideas, because nobody in Hollywood is limited.”

In today’s talk, given at TEDxBoston, Ramirez and Liu share more about their motivation for studying memory manipulation. They also walk us through the steps of their research which, after being published in the journal Science, made waves in the international media. First, Liu, Ramirez and their team needed to get creative in order to isolate a single memory in a mouse’s brain. Next, they had to figure out a switch for this memory — and they came up with a method that involves a laser beam. Finally, they experimented with activating the memory, even in the wrong context.

Watch this banter-filled talk for more detail on the process, and to hear the fascinating implications of the research. “I see a world in which we can reactivate any kind of memory that we like. I also see a world where we can erase unwanted memories,” says Ramirez in the talk. “I even see a world where editing memories is something of a reality because we’re living in a time where it’s possible to pluck questions from the tree of science fiction and to ground them in experimental reality.”

Ramirez certainly has a point: Hollywood has long been fixated on the mystery of memory, with a heavy focus on what happens when it’s manipulated. Below, a look at just a selection of movies that deal with twists of memory.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry dreamed up this 2004 indie classic, in which a man (Jim Carey) and woman (Kate Winslet) attempt to erase the memory of their relationship. Ramirez mentions this movie in his Fast Company interview, pointing out a scientific flaw in it. “One thing Eternal Sunshine got wrong was localizing memories. There’s a scene with Elijah Wood, where they’re going into the brain, and [saying] ‘There’s a memory right here, it’s at point A in the brain’, and boom, they delete it. But in reality, memories are distributed throughout the brain,” he says. “There’s the memory of Kate Winslet, and then there’s the awful underlying, visceral feelings that Jim Carey has when he recalls Kate Winslet: the emotional undertones that color in that memory. The emotional undertones and the memory of Kate Winslet itself are largely mediated by separate brain systems. So you can imagine going into the brain, finding the brain cells that represent that dark feeling of a break-up, and inactivating only those.”

Total Recall. In this 1990 classic, a construction worker visits the company “Rekall,” in order to have the memory of a vacation to Mars implanted in his mind. The procedure backfires. Soon, he learns that he is not who he thinks he is at all — but that he’d previously wiped his memory of an entire life on the red planet.


Memento. The 2000 film Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, is a story told in two directions — both in reverse and chronologically. In it, a man with anterograde amnesia (Guy Pearce) is not able to store new memories, and thus uses tattoos, notes and photos to give himself bits and pieces of his dark, complex reality.

Inception. Ramirez referred to his most recent study as “Project Inception.” Why? Because in this 2010 movie, also from Christopher Nolan, a corporate thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets out on what he believes is an impossible mission: to plant an idea in another person’s subconscious through a dream, a thing referred to as “inception.” The movie is both a visual feast and a complete mind workout.


50 First Dates. In this 2004 romantic comedy, a man (Adam Sandler) attempts to woo a woman with memory loss (Drew Barrymore), who after a car accident wakes up every morning thinking it is October 13, 2002. This means that the man has to charm her on repeat, day after day. A light comedy, yes, but still one Ramirez credits for his interest in the science of memory.

The Manchurian Candidate. In this thriller from 1952, the son of a political family is kidnapped during the Korean War along with his platoon. He is brainwashed, and programmed to be an assassin — a killer with no knowledge of what he is doing. Over the course of the movie, his war buddies begin to realize something is amiss, and try to figure out what has happened.

Trance. This psychological thriller, released in the spring, is probably too new to be considered a classic. But we’re including it here regardless because of the themes in the Danny Boyle film. The basic plot: an art auctioneer is part of a plot to steal a painting, but receives a blow to the head that leaves him unable to remember where the painting is. He turns to a hypnotist for help.

The Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is an incredible assassin — fluent in many languages, a great fighter and quick with weapons. Only, he has no memory of why. In this 2002 Doug Liman film that launched a franchise, Bourne tries to discover who he is, while the CIA tries to take him out.

Dark City. Mysterious men in black coats and top hats come in the night to take people’s memories and replace them with new ones, in this neo-noir film from 1998. The atmospheric movie focuses on one man, accused of murder but sure he didn’t do it. Eventually, he discovers that he has the same abilities to manipulate memory as the so-called “Strangers.”