A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Memory and X-men Origins

Flipping through the TV channels, I caught the last 10 minutes or so of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For those who don't know, Wolverine is a 'mutant' who's special power is that he can heal himself from virtually any injury. While Wolverine is most well known for having a metal skeleton, complete with metallic claws that grow out of the top of his hands, that is the result of an experiment he was able to live through due to his healing powers. In the original three X-Men movies, Wolverine did not remember much of anything about his past, including the metal-skeleton experiments nor did he remember Sabertooth, a character that, by comic-book cannon, he should have known very well. The Origins movie happens well before the events in the original trilogy. I gather from the last 10 minutes, that it focused on the metal-skeleton experiment, and heavily involve Sabertooth. "How are they going to handle this?" I wondered. Turns out, they had a good plan. The leader of the experiment loads a gun with six bullets and tells someone he is going to go shoot Wolverine in the head. "It won't kill him," the interloper states plainly, "even if you blow his head off, it will grow back." The leader is undeterred, "His brain will grow back, but the memories won't."

Six shots later, three in the head, and Wolverine is on the ground, out for the count. After his healing powers kick in, he wakes up... sans memory. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The dog tags around his neck give him his name, and the ensuing brief bits of conversation indicate that he doesn't know even his close friends. It is a very clever way to explain the memory loss. As a movie or comic-book gimmick, I give it high marks. But it plays off of a clearly impossible view of how the brain works. The mix of materialism and dualism creates an odd double-think about the relationship between ability, memory, and neural structure. That is, the gimmick works because it plays off of the horrible way in which lay people think about the relationship between the brain and mental abilities... and this way of thinking is encouraged by at least some cognitive psychologists.

Let's look for a moment about the 'facts' of this imaginary situation:
  1. Wolverine is a fully functional human organism before being shot. He can read, speak, drive, remember a life-time of experiences, etc.
  2. After being shot he can still read, write, reason, and by all indications survive on his own.
  3. However, he does not 'remember' anything. 
  4. He had extensive brain damage which fully healed.
From this we can make some conclusions about how brains work in this imaginary world. Wolverine's body contains all the instructions necessary to rebuild a badly damaged brain. I've got no problem with that part; unreasonable healing is his special power. But much more intriguingly, a brain healed by such means comes complete with some abilities, and not others. And apparently the abilities restored have little to do with the part of the brain shot. (Not to be too picky, but while the first head shot is in the back of the head, there appear to be no consequences for vision or motor control).

What this implies is that our movie takes place in a world where some abilities are closely tied to the physical structure of the brain, while other abilities are not. Thus, a brain can be blown apart, and healed fully, absolutely fully, without restoring certain abilities. My intuition is that our movie takes place in a world completely believable, in this respect, to the average viewer. The average movie watcher has been indoctrinated to accept that certain abilities are intimately tied to brain structure, but has been indoctrinated to be extremely dualistic with respect to other abilities. The crude presentations of the 'computer metaphor' for the brain encourages such thinking. In the crudest versions of this metaphor, we all essentially have the same computer (brain), but all run different software (mind). Thus, some abilities are hard-wired, and would be restored by a full hardware fix; while other abilities are in the software, and we all know that even the most thorough hardware fix would not restore the software.

Was this really ever a reasonable way of talking about how the brain works? I think not.

More importantly: By any criterion, it is a really bad way to still be talking about the brain. Let us set aside, for now, the incredible importance of environmental factors in supporting mental and behavioral processes. Let us just look at the brain.

Even by the best possible use of the computer analogy, the brain is entirely hardware, ever changing hardware. There is no magic in the brain, it is nothing other than physiology, a network of cells with individual properties, arranged in a particular way. There are changes that occur within the cells, there are changes in the way cells are connected. That is it. There are many different types of structures in the brain, and we actually know very little about which types of changes occur over the course of different types of experiences. But one thing is sure: If we are holding environment constant, and we hold the rest of the body constant, then short-term changes in mind and behavior result from structural changes in the brain and long-term changes in mind and behavior result from structural changes in the brain. That is it.

While selective brain damage does create selective impairment, any super healing ability should either return the brain back to a pre-learning state, or return it back to pre-injury function. Anything inbetween is just weird dualism. That is, I'm fine with the idea that a few bullets to the brain wipe Wolverine's memories, but then they should also wipe his ability to read, speak, walk, intellectualize a situation, etc. I'm also fine with the idea that Wolverine can have his brain liquified and then regain the ability to read, speak, and walk, but then he should also regain the memories. Whatever the processes are that occur when a person recalls events of the past, they are not fundamentally different, on a physiological level, than the processes that occur during any of these other activities. There is no meaningful distinction to be made between remembering how to walk and being able to walk. Similarly, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between remembering your friend, and doing all the things you used to do in the presence of your friend (the things you do including calling him by his name, greeting him in a particular way, reminiscing, etc.).

To end by stealing a theme from Stephen Colbert: The movie writers get a 'tip of the hat' for coming up with a clever way of dealing with their memory-loss problem, the movie going public gets a 'wag of the finger' for not being at least a little bothered by it.


  1. Cross posted:

  2. eric -

    In following some of the links in your current post re embodied cognition I reread this post, specifically the part about Wolverine and his non-restored memory. This is, of course, reminiscent of Davidson's "Swampman" thought experiment:


    But there is possibly a significant distinction. The leader of the experiment supposedly says that Wolverine's brain will "grow back", from which one could infer that generic brain tissue is restored, but not necessarily the specific neural interconnections. But Swampman-Davidson's decomposed brain is just Davidson's brain restored in its previous configuration ("molecule for molecule"), presumably including all pre-decomposition neural structure.

    Now, the writers of X-men have literary license to ignore the distinction and claim that Wolverine's restored brain has only selected capabilities. Davidson doesn't, but seems nevertheless to do so. Since he almost certainly wasn't a closet dualist and was too smart to make the ROM-RAM error from analogizing with computers that you mention, Davidson's claims about Swampman's capabuilities are very confusing.