Christopher Nolan, Twitter and the future of memory

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Fourteen years ago, Christopher Nolan made a psychological thriller named “Memento”. It was a work of art and it catapulted Nolan to fame; he would go on to do a trilogy of well-received “Batman” films and another psychological thriller, “Inception” and last year he had a new movie with a lot of buzz, “Interstellar”.

In “Memento”, a man who only has short-term memory is trying to figure out who killed his wife. Because he lacks the memory functions we all take for granted, he has to frantically take notes and mark himself with clues that he will have to use when his memory resets itself.

It’s a lot of work and it was revolutionary in 2000. Today, he could just use Twitter. There are people with no explicit memory. They can’t remember what they ate or even where they put their luggage on an airplane. But now it’s gotten a lot easier than taking cryptic notes and sticking them on the mirror.

Credit: Columbia TriStar


Memory becomes something of a luxury when the information is easy to recall. They can find a way to do without it and perhaps so can we. The future may belong to people who can parse through an on-demand archive. As a young man, for example, I was always considered smart. Not because I was necessarily intelligent but because I had excellent recall. I remembered a lot of things, not just episodic memory – but semantic. Yet the future is not mine. In the modern era, the people who can process information won’t need to remember it, they will just need to know where to find it quickly. They may even be able to start shedding memories that are distractions.

The replacement for those memories doesn’t even have to be high-tech. Fast Company writer John Paul Titlow interviewed Thomas Dixon, whose declarative episodic memory was ruined in an accident. Dixon catalogs his recent experiences using things like Google, Twitter and Excel. He jots down what he did, who he is supposed to call, etc. As a result, he can see patterns in his life we never notice because we have easy access to memories. He can’t simply forget whether or not he has gone to the gym because he forgets everything. The data can’t be ignored for him, the way it can for you and I.

He is objective in a way we cannot be. On the other side, he also has very little to fear about the future because he is not trapped in the past, like some people can be. Researchers writing in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory recently conducted a study that traced implicit and explicit memories of fear using electrodermal activity. They found that our brain encodes contextual memories of a negative event – like what we may have seen and where it happened – differently than other memories. There was actually a forgetting curve they could trace.

The authors say their finding could explain uncontrolled emotional responses linked to negative events in pathological post-traumatic stress disorder patients, responses that happen without knowing what causes them.

PTSD treatment could one day be as simple as resetting that forgetting curve, attaching the emotional response back to explicit memory. It may also mean that the portion of memory that is erased or to which we do not have access could be forever shut off and the emotional connection also.

What would we lose if we had to rely on Twitter for recall of a lot of those emotional events?  Not much. We could just stare at our phones for a while and be done with them.

Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0 and an award-winning science writer who has appeared in numerous publications, from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 he was co-author of the bestselling book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell.

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