When we look at an old photograph of someone we know–perhaps a spouse, a mother, or a son–memories of them come to our minds, yet the memories in our minds are not in the form of pictures. We think about past moments in motion. Our minds play movies of memories as short as a second, even half a second, over and over again, yet memory is constantly shifting. In “The Frontal Cortex” author and Wired magazine contributing editor Jonah Leher explains the phenomenon by stating, “It turns out that the act of summoning the past to the surface actually changes the memory itself. The more you remember an event, the less reliable that memory becomes.” Remembering the past can make us feel something strong, something heavy. And that’s why we enjoy movies: because we crave lost feelings. Watching a fictional character’s memories in the format of a film satisfies our longings and reinvigorates lost sensations in a way similar to how psychosomatic problems are often solved with mirrors. For example, mirrors allow patients with phantom limbs to “feel” sensations in their missing body parts.
Memories are immaterial matter that do not exist visibly, just like phantom limbs. But because memories cannot be reflected in a mirror, we need to relive the past in order to see them.
Films are not meant to be realistic, although realism is the starting point for all cinema. Roland Barthes uses the word “punctum” to describe one of the ways we relate to photographs. A photograph is a point of departure that takes us back to a moment in the past. Of course, there is always a reason why we remember a certain moment. Context, perhaps just an action, a gesture, or just a micro-movement in a person’s expression, activates the moving images in our heads. We remember what initiated our response. We think about how it made us feel. We think about it many times just to feel like we did in the past.
We all crave emotions like food, but emotions taste differently for everyone because we have unique responses to the same stimuli. That is what intrigues me and film has created the best excuses to investigate human emotions and behaviors.