Rise of the Neurothriller

Inception cleaned up in the effects categories at the Academy Awards because they go to movies built around cool ideas. In this case, literally. The centerpiece of the film is a machine that allows clever intruders to enter other people's dreams and steal their ideas - or implant new ones. Inception is the latest standout example of the mind-manipulation movie, following in the tracks of Memento and classics like George Cukor's Gaslight. Call them neurothrillers.

What makes neurothrillers relevant now? Sure, we've always had psychological suspense flicks, but over the past decade they've been coming fast and thick. The Bourne Identity series is one long neurothriller. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brought the subgenre into the realm of art, while the stinker Johnny Mnemonic did the opposite. Liam Neeson's new movie Unknown is about a man whose mind has been tampered with, while the much-anticipated Source Code is about Jake Gyllenhaal using futuristic brain tech to jump inside somebody else's head. And these are just a few of the dozens of movies out there dealing with people whose memories are altered or blocked off - or whose entire identities are fabrications.

The question is, why have our minds become crime scenes?

Gadget futurism
There's a simple answer to start with, which is that many of these stories are just giving us futuristic snapshots of technologies that have evolved over the past decade. Using brain implants such as Braingate, or just an Emotiv headset, you can interface with your computer using just the power of your brain. "Neural pacemakers" implanted under the skin can stimulate specific nerves, delivering jolts that relieve depression or give orgasms.

With weird brain tech making the headlines, it's no wonder that we're awash in movies like Inception or Eternal Sunshine . These film's genius lies in their ability to extrapolate what the world will be like when brain-tweaking comes in the form a gadget you can pick up at Best Buy. What happens to identity when you can choose what you want to remember, or edit your child's memories? And can you ever really dream up a new idea, when you live in a world where even the act of personal creation can be manipulated by some guy on the other end of a brain-to-brain firewire setup?

This is the world we're about to live in, and so it's no wonder that our science fiction about it is moving into overdrive.

Alzheimers terror
But there's a dark side to our neuro-futures that has nothing to do with technology. With an aging population, Alzheimers and other memory-eroding conditions are on the rise and there's nothing we can do about it. Profound memory loss may lurk in many of our personal futures, and in our darkest moments many of us struggle to imagine how we'll deal with it.

Memento and the Bourne Identity are perfect compensatory fantasies for the memory loss generation - after all, they're about heroes who can be badass even with a blank past, or no short-term memory.

Your brain belongs to the company
Worse than losing your memory, though, may be the gnawing sensation that your memories, desires, and motivations may not really be yours. If your brain can be reprogrammed and memories edited out, who is to say that your entire life isn't just a deluxe identity package from Google Self, installed by some bored admin? This idea is an old one in science fiction, reaching its paranoid peak in the 1960s and 70s novels of Philip K. Dick - many of which have become movies since that time.

This kind of story also has its cheesy side in Johnny Mnemonic and Paycheck, which are both about men who rent parts of their brains to the highest bidder. One of Dick's preoccupations in stories like Total Recall (get a vacation injected into your memories!) and A Scanner Darkly (the cops hire half of your brain to spy on the other half!) is the way consumer brain tech allows corporations to control your brain even more precisely than they do now. That's one of the deep anxieties of the neurothriller.

Think about it. Every time you go to work, as Morpheus would say, you are in the Matrix. Depending on your job, you're told where to sit, what to do with your body, how to feel ("Have a nice day!"), and even what to think (currently, I am being paid to think about neurothrillers, though possibly I might rather be reading porn). It's as if your mind is being controlled when you're working. That was the genius of the Matrix trilogy, a neurothriller where humans have been turned into batteries whose minds only experience what they're fed by the Machines who enslave them. Everything they experience is a lie fed to them so that they'll keep working.

In this way, neurothrillers are as much about the present day as they are a weird future of brain gadgets and malfunctions. They speak to the uncanny experience of going to work and thinking corporate-approved thoughts all day. Maybe they're thoughts you enjoy - like writing about neurothrillers, or developing a cool app.

But can you ever really call ideas your own if you were told by somebody else to think them?