christopher's notes

Leonard Shelby's system is shit in Memento

Seriously, if you don't remember things that happen, don't you think one of the most important things to write down would be things that happen?

I watched Memento for the first time last night. I've been wanting to see it since Tenet tickled my brain when I first watched it a year ago. This post has minor spoilers for Memento, but it's probably fine to read if you haven't seen the film.

Memento is about a guy with anterograde amnesia - that is, existing memories work normally but he cannot form any new memories beyond a certain point in the past.

The necessary question is, "How do you function at all if you can't remember anything?" Naively, this seems borderline impossible. The film is actually very effective at showing us all the subtle places we instinctively rely on memory: recognizing friends, lovers, or enemies, knowing how to get home, remembering what happened earlier in a conversation or just what you were doing a minute ago.

In the film, Leonard builds a system of notes that he has built instinct to rely on. In one pocket, photos of friends with short notes about them that can be quickly read. In another, information about where he lives and what car he drives.

Notably absent from the system is any record of what has happened. You know a journal, the thing people without amnesia use to keep track of things that happen to them. Any notes he leaves for himself are either "do this thing" or "this is a fact". He finds himself, often to his dismay, in weird and sketchy situations, with no knowledge of why he is there, but only a note of instructions without reasoning. And the notes he leaves himself are brief, vague, and always expressed in absolute terms.

[Spoilers in this paragraph.] Of course, there's many reasons that he may do this, somewhat intentionally. First of all, it makes for a much more interesting film. But, even within universe, we slowly realize that there are some things he may not want to remember, or even moments of self-deception that crop up near the climax of the film. The point of this note isn't really to examine that side of things. (I'm adding another sentence of padding so the spoilers don't stick out while skimming.)

There's also the issue that it's probably quite hard to build a system when you can't remember anything. Creating any such marginally complicated system includes revising it as issues crop up, but Leonard may not be able to remember issues or necessarily even identify long-term issues in the first place. The system needs to truly be a second brain. Or honestly, in this case, a first brain.

Anyway, I'm not so interested in the in-universe explanations for these questions in Memento. A much more interesting question is to just design an ideal system, from the outside. Something that would work for me, if I was suddenly struck with a condition like Leonard's.

This question isn't entirely hypothetical. I believe any good "life system" or "second brain" (your way of tracking the things you learn and the things you have done or need to do) should be pretty strongly resistant to memory loss. If I randomly lost significant pieces of my memory, I think an ideal system should allow me to get back to work relatively smoothly.

So what, might this look like? What pieces is Lenny missing?

The film is from 2000, so we have a huge advantage in the modern day via smartphones with fingerprint readers. We have an easy way to store an essentially unlimited amount of photos and journal entries. It's interesting to think about how to set up Obsidian or something like that so that you instinctively know where to find the information you need. The key is naively surfacing the right information quickly: what are you doing right now, what information do you need to do it, and why? A single scrap note works well, as does a polaroid with notes on the back. Maybe it's good the film wasn't written in the 2020s?

Here's some of the things I think about in my own second brain "life system" which is especially optimized for software development:

Well, that was a lot longer than I thought it would be. It was probably a lot more useful for me than it was for you. Thanks for reading, anyway!

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