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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Break-Ups and the Pain in Your Brain

Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an interesting exploration of memory and the impact of a breakup. Can we grow without the memories of our failures? Gabe discusses the toxic couple and the ways our relationships can define us, shaping us into the people we're to become. Kat researches the effects of break-ups on our brains, and the physical and mental pains that come from a split. As well as covers how our brain retains or erases memories for our benefit and health.


Media from this week's episode:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004):

When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories for ever.

  • Director - Michel Gondry


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: It's Okay to Not Be Okay After a Breakup by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Boring Boy meets Quirky Girl. He loves her spontaneity. She loves how he loves her. But when Quirky Girl is revealed to actually be Impulsive and Reckless Girl and Boring Boy is actually Mean and Judgemental Boy, they break up. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an incredibly creative exploration of memory and relationships. How much of love is the memories built together and our raw feelings for one another? Screenwriter, Michel Gondry said of his scripts journey, 'Soon, I had a completely different idea of how I should do Eternal Sunshine. It became about memories. How we are our memories, and how our memories affect our lives. Losing them - before you die - is tragic.”

The film follows Joel and Clementine, an unlikely pair in the midst of a recoupling, a fiery breakup, and their very beginning. While mourning his breakup, Joel is informed that his impulsive ex-girlfriend went through a procedure to erase him from her memories, to forget him and their life together. Joel decides, in a moment of his own anguish and despair to get the procedure himself.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a twisted version of the rom-com, showing us what happens after the meet-cute. The film shows us the flaws in the character tropes we’ve come to find cozy. Years before the term was coined, Clementine dismantles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl idea. Nathan Rabin described this trope as, a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” And those first glimpses of Clementine feel much like this. She wears bright sweaters and changes her hair. She’s loud and attention seeking, just what Joel needs as he muses to himself at how bored he is. Complaining that sand is overrated, just small rocks. But as the story progresses, we learn that these quirks are veiled red flags. In an article on,‘ Eternal Sunshine’ Destroyed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Stereotype Before It Even Existed, writer Allison Herman explains the disillusionment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, “As we’re taken through the lowlights of their relationship, the audience learns that the booze she pours into her coffee isn’t an endearing quirk; it’s a sign of the drinking problem that led her to total Joel’s car. She’s mercurial, irresponsible, and resentful of Joel to the point of being outright nasty. And, of course, she’s repeatedly described — by herself and everyone around her — as that term more associated with the MPDG than perhaps any other: “impulsive.” But even more damning is Clementine’s own resistance to the Manic Pixie label, even before the label is named. She explains to Joel in the beginning of their first relationship that she is aware of the image she leaves, the expectations that others put on her saying, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” While Joel is losing his grip on his memories he remembers this conversation and though then-Joel works to dissuade Clem’s fears, current-Joel knows better saying, “I still thought you would save me,”

And even in the midst of him erasing her, he relies on her or at least his idea of Clementine. He invents a version of her in his mind and enlists her help to stop the erasure after experiencing those first moments of love once again. Seeing her as he had whent hey first began inspires him to fight for her, for them, and what they had hoped to be. In an article on CinePhileFix, Film Analysis: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” they summarize the power of the imagined Clementine quite well. “When they challenge the erasing process by hiding in childhood remembrances and other “off the map” memories, the escape route is always suggested by Clementine. Joel would never arrive to such conclusions himself, but he subconsciously asks himself what would Clementine do and acts upon it. So when she whispers that final line inside his head, what he’s really doing is implanting an impulse; something Lacuna can’t touch.”

The procedure isn’t flawless and reveals that relationships leave something deep and ingrained within us, a mark that can’t be erased. We see this with the side plot of Kirsten Dunst’s character, a young employee of the memory erasing agency, Lacuna. (​The term "lacunar amnesia" refers to the condition in which someone loses memory of a particular thing or event). Dunst’s Mary has a girlish crush on the her boss, Dr. Mierzwaik. A man much older and to her, charmingly wizened. In a desperate move, she kisses him and it’s revealed to her that they’ve been here before. Later, Mary finds her own tape of her recorded interview before the procedure. In a truly, Hills Like White Elephants, conversation Mary explains how the affair started. Her voice frail and uncertain as Dr. Mierzwaik coaxes her forward. Mary then figures out that she had been happy and the idea of erasing someone from your life is cruel and unusual punishment. So she mails everyone’s tapes to them to reveal what they had lost.

We see throughout how the erasure has greatly impacted Clementine’s already fragile mental state. The missing moments, the holes left behind, are nagging at her and she is convinced something is wrong. Our relationships, even the dark and harmful ones, are a part of us. They are our growth, our journeys. We don’t need them, but we have lived them. The beginning of the film finds Joel in an act of unlikely spontaneity, ditching work and running off to the cold beach of Montauk. Here, he meets Clementine, not knowing this is a second first-meeting. They keep catching each other’s eyes but never interacting until they’re on the way home. When Clem pounces on Joel, manically chatting away about hair dye color names, Joel feels the soft pangs of interest, the desire and attraction still there. They end up in a new affair, discovering each other for the second first time. Though the blissful beginning is stopped short by the discovery of their tapes. With them, they hear the worst of each other. They see what they’d become and what they’ll eventually believe of each other. Clem again mentions her Manic Pixie Dream Girl worries, knowing he will get tired of her. Joel once again says he won’t let that happen. And we’re left wondering if he means it, or if in the end he’ll find that he was, once again, still hope she’d save him. Because in the end, in their second first meeting, they were still very much the broken people they’d been at the start. They are vulnerable and hurt, yearning for someone to fill the holes they feel inside. Only now they know those holes are shaped like each other.

I read somewhere that a previous iteration of the script featured an older Clementine coming in for the procedure for the 15th time, showing that simply erasing someone isn’t enough. I think I would’ve preferred this framing. To show the persistence and doom of a flawed relationship. That simply knowing why something ended isn’t enough to not have it end again. Or that erasing the pain and darkness of a relationship won’t doom you to repeat it. I don’t think we need bad things to happen to us, but bad things do happen to us. And when they do, we need to carry those memories with everything else and it becomes a part of us, who we will be. That CinePhile article sums up this feeling quite well, “Letting go is one of the hardest things a person can do. It doesn’t mean they’re giving up, it means they’re moving on. We hold on to things we value as if they will cease to exist when we let go. The truth is they won’t. Letting go or giving up isn’t an act of cowardice; quite often it’s an act of supreme bravery. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” tells us to accept things as they are and make the most of what we have when all hope is lost.” Our ends are just as important as our beginnings.


The Science of Letting Go: Breakups Can Hurt Your Brain by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

This is one of those films that so many people love so vehemently that I feel like people will not understand where I’m coming from….and that’s okay…but I really really really didn’t like this movie. I vaguely remember watching it in my teen years and having a positive opinion on it, but watching as an adult hit very very different. Which has nothing to do with the way it was filmed as there were some really cool shots, and the way they explored the brain was very interesting. It does a lot of pretty interesting and creative things BUT its script made me cringe so many times. It is very clearly a reflection of people who wrote it and a gross collection of their issues, world views, unseasoned hot takes, etc. There was not a single character in this film that didn’t suck. I don’t know if this is because I'm fairly far along on my healing journey or because at the ghouls we can not help but watch media with our analysis glasses on, but so much of this film was toxic. The most Gen X of love stories that I have ever seen, and the most not romantic movie I’ve ever seen. These characters should absolutely not be together, should get therapy instead of getting doctor-piloted brain damage, and the doctors and all their staff should 100% be in jail. They were predators, making money and benefiting off of exploiting traumatized humans. Ultimately the reason I so strongly feel that this movie is a problem is it gave a lot of people hope for relationships that were very toxic and should have definitely ended. Sometimes stuff doesn’t work out, and that’s better, even if it doesn’t feel that way for a while. That’s just my personal hill that I’m VERY ready to die on, and the end of my rant.

How do breakups impact the brain?

At the end of the day, trauma is highly subjective, and entirely dependent upon the person experiencing something. A break up can be traumatic to someone, and is entirely dependent on who the people in the relationship are, how it ended, how invested both parties were, and the factors of their life. If a relationship was toxic, abusive, or otherwise problematic there are added factors that could make a separation both traumatic and life altering.

A key part of what makes break ups so impactful is when building a life with someone, you integrate them into so many parts of your life. You create foundations, supports, and routines all centered around another human, and the process of dismantling and losing those pieces can entirely disrupt your life. This disruption can be exacerbated depending on the way your brain works, the traumas you experienced in your life, and the other relationships you have with your friends and family. All these factors influence just how impactful a breakup can be. The loss of a partner through a break up can be traumatic and in an article on insider titled: Breakups can impact you in more ways than you think. Here's the science behind why they hurt so much by Sophia Mitrokostas they say: “When you go through a breakup, especially one that's unexpected, your body may register it as an emergency and go into "fight-or-flight" mode. Being in this state triggers the release of hormones that can prepare your body to stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety, according to Very Well Mind. It can also trigger a rapid heartbeat or trembling.” It highlights an overarching problem in society of not viewing emotional and mental distress as an actual medical issue when looking at the way that these trauma responses impact our physical health. Staying in a state of hyper-vigilance for too long can also release toxic levels of cortisol and cause longer lasting health problems. We discussed this before on the ghouls, but I specifically remember unpacking the way trauma and cortisol impact our physical health during our Turning Red episode. So if interested in more information on that specifically, check out that episode. When it comes to a break up specifically, the article quotes a licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Kristin Bianchi "Research has shown that regions of the brain that get activated in response to physical pain also get activated in response to a breakup. Whether we've broken a bone or gotten dumped, many of the same underlying neurological structures are involved. This translates to the conscious experience of being in pain.” The article goes on to describe the way in which a break up can alter our brain chemistry, and that when someone goes through a breakup, “they experience a drop in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that are associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness.

In another article from BigThink titled Using the logic of neuroscience to heal from a breakup by Jaimee Bell they go into detail on how our brains process love, and process loss in a break up. The feeling of being in love was known to light up the reward centers of the brain releasing dopamine, serotonin and other feel good body chemicals that support positive things within the body. The loss of these feel good chemicals can experience a level of withdrawal similar to that of drug withdrawal in how it is processed by our brains. “When we are in love, our bodies are actively producing feel-good hormones and denying the release of negative hormones – and when this process suddenly stops, the “withdrawal” we feel can be extremely difficult to process both on an emotional and physiological level.” Along similar lines, the parts of the brain that process physical pain also lit up within the brains of those experiencing emotional pain from a break up. “In the MRI images of these people struggling with recent heartbreak, the parts of the brain that lit up were the same parts of the brain that are active when you experience physical pain.”

The solutions for dealing with these emotional responses are easier said than done, in that they require a lot of intentional deprogramming. This includes avoiding visual, auditory, and other sensory cues that activate the parts of our brains that store memory. Seeking out physical activity to release endorphins can also help in the process of moving forward. “According to Dr. Winch, one of the biggest hurdles to recalibrating your mind and adapting to life without your ex-partner is that we don’t find closure. Winch suggests that we try to accept the reason for the breakup or even find another reason. Maybe the relationship would not have worked out because you wanted different things in life or because they were not emotionally available for you. Finding logic in heartbreak can be a good start to the healing process.” Finding logic post break up can be especially challenging when logic is missing from the equation, or when you and your ex partner struggle in communicating and self awareness. Sometimes logic does not exist in breakups, so it can be especially challenging when breakups happen suddenly or without any real logical cause. Searching for logic can help however in finding closure. Trying to identify causes and reasons for the breakup can help.

Can people erase their memories?

Apparently the science for memory removal is there, or is on its way. There are many ways memory erasure could be used to support mental health, and equally ways it could damage mental health. It’s one of those Jurassic Park questions. Should we? Idk.

In an article on SciTechDaily, titled: New Technique Can Help People Forget Certain Memories by the University of York they go through where research currently stands on using sound to suppress and enhance memory during sleep. While they are currently in the experimental phase of this research it seems their findings are promising in using sound cues to alter memories.

In additional research it seems there are a handful of ways to suppress memories. In an article on, titled Neural Correlates of Direct and Indirect Suppression of Autobiographical Memories

They state: “Research indicates that there are two possible mechanisms by which particular target memories can be intentionally forgotten. Direct suppression, which involves the suppression of the unwanted memory directly, and is dependent on a fronto-hippocampal modulatory process, and, memory substitution, which includes directing one’s attention to an alternative memory in order to prevent the unwanted memory from coming to mind, and involves engaging the caudal prefrontal cortex (cPFC) and the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) regions.”


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