Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with John Seamon

In honor of the 88th Academy Awards, we revisit John Seamon’s discussion of his book, Memory and Movies, which explains how popular films can help us understand how memory works.

What can we learn about memory from watching movies?

Many of us love watching movies because they offer unparalleled opportunities for entertainment. At the same time, because we are really good at learning by watching others—what psychologists call “observational learning”—there is always the potential to pick up misinformation in films. This is especially true in the depiction of memory disorders. Concussions, for example, can produce amnesia, but they never produce memory recovery. Yet, since the silent film era, film characters have recovered their lost memories after a second head bonk. This comedic portrayal of memory might easily be dismissed, except that surveys in the United States and Canada show that roughly 40 percent of the respondents believe it. Memory processes are often accurately portrayed in movies, allowing us to learn from film, but the potential for misinformation is real.

Can you give a few examples of the best cinematic portrays of how memory works?

Throughout my book I provide numerous examples of films accurately depicting memory phenomenon. Here are some examples. Slumdog Millionaire illustrates our use of three types of knowledge in recalling autobiographical experiences from the past. Titanic and Remembrance depict the reminiscence bump, our long lasting memories for things experienced around age 20, by showing unforgettable, long ago romances. Mystic River and Rachel Getting Married honestly convey the persistence of troubling memories. Amour and Away from Her show the catastrophic effects of dementia on the person afflicted and the spouse left trying to cope. In telling their stories, many films have provided accurate portrayals of a wide range of memory phenomena.

Amnesia is so often inaccurately depicted by filmmakers. What makes amnesia so hard to represent in a movie?

I think that amnesia represents an irresistible memory disorder for filmmakers because it allows characters the opportunity to do a life do-over, as in films such as Desperately Seeking Susan and The Majestic. By forgetting their past, characters have a chance to run off seeking adventure and romance in a new life. But amnesia is more complicated than its usual portrayal in film. It can be temporary or permanent, it can involve the loss of old memories or the inability to make new ones, and it may be based on brain damage or emotional trauma. Different types of amnesia have different characteristics that have been ignored or mixed up in films. The film Memento is one of the best at describing a person that has lost his ability to make new memories. But to avenge his wife’s killer, Memento’s main character subtly makes new memories, memories that easily escape a viewer’s attention, such as remembering where he parks his car, in order for the story to progress. True amnesiacs such as Clive Wearing and Henry Molaison would be really boring to watch, as they would be unable to remember where they parked their car, much less seek romance or revenge.

What happens to our brains when we experience a film? For example, what happens to us neurologically when we watch a particularly emotional scene? 

Psychologists have provided engaging descriptions of the cognitive and neurological processes involved in our perception of film, how we are able to translate a series of still images flashed on a screen into an oftentimes emotionally moving experience. Movies can certainly move us, and while I do not focus on the neural processes involved in film viewing in my book, I do talk about emotion’s effect on memory and how this is experienced in film. Emotion is typically a memory enhancer, as personal experiences that touch us emotionally focus our attention and are remembered well. Movies can also affect us emotionally, bringing forth laughter or tears, because their stories permit us to imagine how we might respond to similar situations in the future. We are gladdened watching a poor tea server amass great wealth by answering game show questions in Slumdog Millionaire, but saddened watching a young writer read a heartfelt letter from a deceased friend in The Kite Runner. Where does this empathy come from? Neuroscientists suggest that specialized cells, called mirror neurons, may play a role in this process by recreating in our brain the emotions that we see on screen, enabling us to experience what a character feels. The ending of the film, Cinema Paradiso, is highly memorable because it provides a perfect example of this vicarious emotional experience.

Why are some movies consistent with reliable memory phenomena, whereas others are merely entertaining fiction?

Popular films are made for entertainment and scientific accuracy is not always necessary. Realistic portrayals of memory are not needed in a comedies involving amnesia, such as 50 First Dates or Desperately Seeking Susan, or in science fiction films, such as Total Recall, involving an implanted memory of a trip to Mars, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the memories of a former lover are erased. But documentaries and dramas are different. We expect documentaries, such as Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives, to provide an accurate depiction of the time that slavery existed in the United States. Similarly, we expect dramas involving commonly shared experiences to reflect real life. Many of us have witnessed the effects of dementia on a family member, as depicted in Amour or Away from Her, experienced family turmoil or felt guilt over something we saw or did, as in Rachel Getting Married or Born on the Fourth of July, or wondered about a long ago romantic partner, as in Remembrance or Cinema Paradiso. Filmmakers have stories to tell and they are not obligated to present memory accurately, but it should be clear to viewers when movies are bending the rules about memory. I believe that we can learn about memory from popular films—if we watch them with an educated eye.