Memento and Personal Identity

I’ve been reflecting on issues of Personal Identity; last month I wrote a blog post on this. On Saturday evening I rented Memento (2000) and watched for the second and third times. This remarkable film features adventure, mystery, human drama, and fascinating movie technique. Over-riding all of these is the portrayal of memory and the mind. Although I’ve been studying memory for 30 years, Memento gave fresh perspectives. If the role of art is to present fresh insights by sharing the thoughts of others, Momento is true and impressive art.

Synopsis. On the surface, Memento is a standard zoloft detective story. Leonard, the central character, is focused on finding the man who, during a home invasion, murdered Leonard’s wife and crushed Leonard’s skull, leaving him with brain damage. The brain damage left Leonard with severe anterograde amnesia*. He remembers nothing between a time shortly after the attack and the present. He can operate in “the present”, but, once events leave the present (when they exit “working memory”), all trace of these activities is lost.

Leonard (left) uses tattoos and polaroid photos as memory aids — mementos. Teddy may or may not be a friend, and may or may not be trustworthy.

The construction of the movie is brilliant. The director, Christopher Nolan, presents the scenes in reverse time-series. If one thinks of the events of the movie as a series in time, the last is presented first and the first, last. This leaves you, the viewer, extremely confused. When you view a scene, you don’t know what led up to it. The brilliance is that you are viewing the scene as Leonard views it, since his brain has no store of the preceding zoloft half life events. You, the viewer, feel the confusion, frustration and lack of certainty that Leonard must feel every moment. This cinematic trick is riveting, and helps you understand and empathize with Leonard. You are no longer a detached, all-knowing observer. You are Leonard.

Initially we are impressed with Leonard. He has developed two clever strategies that help him deal with the disability: He tattoos himself with ‘facts’; and he annotates polaroid pictures. These memory aids — mementos — are recorded before the “facts” can leave working memory. 100% of his energy is focused on finding his enemy. We are hopeful and convinced that Leonard, with his intelligence and drive, can overcome odds, achieve his goals, and live a fruitful life. But this is not to be.

Memento and the Mind The key diner scene:

Leonard: Memory’s unreliable.

Leonard: Look, memory can change the shape of a room, the color of a car; and memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation; they’re not a record. They’re irrelevant if face itchy on accutane you have the facts.

Teddy: You really want to get this guy, don’t you.

Leonard: Yeah. He killed my wife, he took away my f..n memory. (pause)

Leonard: He destroyed my ability to live.

Teddy: (feels Leonard’s neck for pulse) You’re livin’

Leonard: Only for revenge.

There are several psychological features at the core of the film. One is the accuracy of memory: does memory reflect reality or is it a story? Neuroscientists largely agree that both perception and memory, rather than being passive responses to events in the world are constructions. What we perceive and remember is a mix of raw sensory data and belief about what the world is or should be. The term confabulation is used when a perception or memory is based more on belief than reality. Confabulation is a common feature of dementia**. In Memento we are faced with the question of how much of Leonard’s memory of the past is real and how much constructed from beliefs and wishes.

A second, and more important issue is the role of memory in personhood, in individual identity. My initial insight of the role of memory in personal identity came from reading John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher. For Locke, personal identity depends on the construction of a conscious story-line of self, a “same continued consciousness”. According to Locke, self depends on mind, not substance:

Self depends on consciousness, not on substance … personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but, as I have said, in the identity of consciousness

and the relation to memory,

Suppose I wholly lose the memory of some parts of my life, beyond a possibility of retrieving them, so that perhaps I shall never be conscious of them again … Absolute oblivion separates what is thus forgotten from the person …

Suppose I wholly lose the memory of some parts of my life … But abilify online if it be possible for the same man to have distinct incommunicable consciousness at different times, it is past doubt the same man would at different times make different persons

Basil Smith summarizes this well: “Locke argued that personal identity is a matter of our conscious memories over time“. Locke’s conception of identity was, for me, a revelation. But the full impact did not hit until I saw Memento. By forcing the viewer to imagine life without memory, I could feel the sense of self oozing away. Without memory, self would be a mystery. Locke proposed a concept of personal identity based on memory; Memento takes the us into the mind of an amnestic mind and reveals the loss.

In sum, Memento takes us on a fantastic journey. Through remarkable cinematography and creative story-telling, Christopher Nolan guides us through the mind of Leonard and ourselves.


* The brain region damaged was, almost certainly, the hippocampus. This is indirectly alluded to in the movie. Could have been due directly to a blow to the head, or, more likely, lack of oxygen to the brain. Bilateral damage to the hippocampus causes anterograde amnesia identical to the deficit described by Leonard.

A strange feature of the movie is that Leonard repeatedly mis-states his condition. He says he doesn’t have amnesia; he says that he has a deficit in short-term memory. He has amnesia, and its not a deficit in “short-term memory”. Here is a mixed bag of scientific fact and error. Leonard says that an amnestic can respond to conditioning. The example presented is that an amnestic can learn to avoid touching an object when the touch leads to shock. This is true. But he incorrectly calls this conditioned response an “instinct”. An instinct is unlearned. This would be a conditioned (learned) response, not an instinct.

** I visited my grandfather in his apartment in New York weeks before he died. He said, “John, its so nice of you to go so far out of your way to visit.” He thought we were in a beautiful hotel in Japan, not his bedroom. When my grandmother and I pointed out that each piece of furniture was part of his bedroom, he said that this was such a splendid hotel that they replicated his bedroom. I imagine his brain was giving mixed signals: each piece of furniture was familiar, but, due to his dementia, the combination was not familiar. He confabulated a lovely story that made sense of the conflicting messages.

Note added: Mo Costandi sent a link to an excellent article he wrote on Memory and Amnesia in the Movies. Goes into detail about Memento and current neuroscientific views of memory.


John locke Essay concerning Human Understanding, book 2, chapter 27

Basil SmithJohn Locke, Personal Identity and Memento“. In The Philosophy of Neo-noir (2007) Mark Connard, ed. (I came across this essay by Smith after writing most of this blog post. The views are remarkably similar. The essay goes into greater detail on the relation between Nolan and Locke’s view of personal identity.

John Kubie

This entry was posted in by John Kubie, Learning and Memory
The Society for Neuroscience and its partners are not responsible for the opinions and information posted on this site by others.
John Kubie

About John Kubie

I work at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where my time is divided between research, teaching and avoiding committees. In grad school I studied olfaction in snakes and salamanders, but I’ve been studying the rat hippocampus and its relations to navigation and memory since the 1980s. Bob Muller, Jim Ranck and I were among the first to characterize hippocampal place cells recorded in behaving rats.

Outside of science (and perhaps inside) I’m a boring guy. Interests include people, movies, philosophy, travel, computers and family. I’ve been blogging for less than a year, but it has become a strong interest and hobby. The other blog is

2 thoughts on “Memento and Personal Identity

  1. Pingback: Memento and Personal identity | Corona Radiata

  2. A note about death. What neuroscience can say about this is obviously very limited. The nature of memory’s engram is by and large unknown other than vague references about consolidation of memories in the cortex.i noticed myself false or artifactual memories and have come to distrust my sense of identity, espescially after my brain was repeatedly applied with 1 Amp of current, right unilaterally for 15 seconds 3 times a week. This very noticably dislocated my identity, may have created artifactual memories and some episodes are now rather oniric and feel as though they are recollected in the third person.

    This brings me to death. Neuroscience’s tacit assumption is that the engram is a physical record, a structure with some contentious parallelism of form with episodes of one’s life. Death thus would have the engram rot to oblivion, a true loss of information, an increase in entropy. If something, somehow survives death, a “consciousness field” as it’s been put, it seems unlikely to me, having experienced artificial little death, that the engram follows it. I view it as one argument for the total obliteration of personal identity after death – it can already partially happen during lifetime. I died a little bit but everybody does, continuously, i’m just a bit more aware of it.

    Interestingly, over months after ECT, (this is now well documented, ECT induces brain-wide plastic changes and neurogenesis) i gradually felt a transformation of my self. I now have cognitive talents i never had. Reading mathematics textbooks and tinkering electronics is much easier. I feel more aware, but maybe i was fading away, my ming was leaking. I don’t trust memory enough anymore to allow myself confabulation about why and how this happened.

    Flag as inappropriate

  3. A couple of references that may be of interest: “Self Comes to Mind” by Antonio Damasio discusses these complex issues in some depth (his hypothesis suggests that ascribing functions such as memory to single areas of the brain is a major oversimplification); in a different light, I’ve recently discovered the film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Julian Schnabel – a beautiful, haunting subjective true account of a 42-year-old man with “Locked-in Syndrome” caused by a stroke involving the mesencephalon. This disorder rivals ALS as the worst possible condition imaginable, and the story is seen through the senses of the man experiencing it. (The film is in French, with subtitles.)

    Flag as inappropriate

Leave a Comment