Trope-ic Thunder: Upstream Color and the Self

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton

This week, on Alex Gladwin’s column, The Tuesday Zone, he reviewed the 2013 existential mind-fuck movie Upstream Color. His column intrigued me enough to take a look at the film. I had seen the writer/producer/director/star/composer’s earlier work Primer, and it was a similar “what is this oh my god wait please stop it hurts” experience.

The film is incredible, absorbing, disorienting, and exhausting- but in the best possible way. I’m not here to review the film, though. I think that Alex’s article did that much better than I ever would. But he brought up a very interesting point that got me thinking and made me decide to write this article:

“The idea that unknown forces impact our behavior, thoughts, and emotions brings up questions like, what part of our personalities and actions are actually us?”

The study of the “self” in psychology has been full of odd and perhaps startling discoveries. Not only do we have to look at how people think about themselves, how people want to be thought of, and how people think others think about them.

funny-baby-mirror-we-meet-againIdentity isn’t nested anywhere specific in the brain, and oddly enough, isn’t even based in memory. Amnesiacs don’t lose their sense of self- nor do they drastically change in personality. This suggests that identity is implicit, and not necessarily related to explicit thought, processing, or memory (which is the type of memory lost in most cases of amnesia). So the self isn’t located in the hippocampus. What neuroscience and psychology has learned is that various parts of the self are couched in the pre-frontal cortex (where a lot of high-order cognition takes place) and in the temporal/parietal junction (which is involved in self-reflection). Research is constantly ongoing and evolving as we learn more.

Now, I feel like I have to make a short distinction between “Self-Concept” and “Self-Esteem.” Self-Concept is how we think about ourselves while Self-Esteem is how we feelabout ourselves. I won’t be talking about self-esteem in this article.

Upstream Color brings up some interesting thoughts about what identity means and how it can be formed or changed. It’s not based in much real science, but it is a very intriguing meditation akin to Thoreau’s Walden (which the film quotes)

Father of modern psychology, William James talked about three facets of self-identity: the material self, the social self, and the psychological self.

The Material Self, includes not only the bodily self (your organs, body parts, physical components) but a sort of extra-corporeal self. This extra-corporeal self is comprised of shit that’s outside the body–possessions, other people. Basically, things you say “my” about- “my car,” “my friends,” “my cellphone,” “my girlfriend.” Remember in elementary school, when Ryan Perkins, that bastard, sat in your seat in Mrs. Berger’s class. What a dick. I hope he’s homeless now. Anyway, even though it’s not actually your seat (it belongs to the school district, tons of people have sat in it before you and will sit in it after you), you still feel it when someone else sits in it. fMRI’s have shown that people feel actual pain when their things are broken. Our possessions are incorporated into our conceptions of identity.

upstream-color-pigs-the-sampler-620xSo, in Upstream Color, when the piglets are taken away, and Kris and Jeff start fucking freaking out, that’s their extra-corporeal self that’s being forcibly removed (also, it might be because of the link due to the parasite).

The Social Self involves societal roles such as ascribed identities (ones you were born with, like being Caucasian) and attained identities (ones you acquire, like a father, or a student, or the host of a parasite).

The Psychological self is a little complicated, but not to dwell on it too much, it involves perceptions of people’s inner characteristics, abilities, attitudes, traits, wishes, emotions, and opinions.


There is a part of the movie where Jeff cannot separate his memories from the memories of Kris. This is actually a pretty common thing for people. Memories can be manufactured, altered, or even downright stolen from other people’s stories- and all the time still remaining so vivid that it was like it just happened. Except it never did. The vividness of a memory is not at all related to its accuracy. There are phenomenon called “Flashbulb memories,” extremely traumatic moments that produce very very vivid memories that seem to never fade. Flashbulb memories, while vivid, are subject to subtle, persistent changes over time. A great series of studies about Flashbulb memories were done after 9/11 and found that memories changed in great detail even after a few weeks- but all the time the participants were absolutely sure that the most recent changed memory was the correct one. I talked about this a lot in my previous column on Memory.

Upstream Color also brings up the question of free will, agency, and autonomy. How much of what we do or think is really our decisions. Well, if you’re of the scientific philosophy called reductionist determinism, you believe that none of it is.

Reductional Determinism believes that when it comes to the mind, we are only the sum of our synapses and action potentials- we are nothing more than our neurons. They also believe that given enough data about you, everything you will ever do can be predicted. The philosophy believes that everything you do, think, and feel is confined by physiological constraints and psychological patterns. That philosophy is on the far end of the mind-body Dualism VS. Monism spectrum. On the other end is classical Cartesian Dualism (named after its father, Rene Descartes). All Dualisms believe that the Mind and the Brain (or the body) are separate, distinct, and not related. In the middle ground, and where most psychologists stand, is a philosophy called Emergent Monism. Emergent Monism says that though the brain is ultimately responsible for the mind, the mind (consciousness, and the like) emerged out of the nested organizational structure of the brain. In other words: the brain is necessary to explain the mind, but not sufficient– the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Upstream-colorUpstream Color seems to sit a little bit on the reductionist side of the debate, toying with the idea that your identity and actions might not be under your own control. For a lot of people who are introduced to some of the startling discoveries made in implicit processing, it can be very alarming. To know that not all of your decisions are really under your control. You may have read a little bit about all that in my article about cognitive biases. The vast majority of your brain, mind, and their functions are unconscious and we don’t really have the kind of knowledge about your self to really dig deep into those processes. That’s why introspection is pretty much all but discounted in psychological research. You may know that you feel angry, but you many not know why you feel angry or that what you feel is really anger. If you look at a study done by psychologists Schachter and Singer in 1962 in which the physiological response at a fear of heights was mistakenly attributed to attraction to a female researcher.

So you may not have as much free will as you think. Or maybe at all. But that’s okay, really. At least I’m not worried. Though that might just be what I’m programmed to do.

Join me next week when I answer another one of your movie science-related questions and be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays

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3 thoughts on “Trope-ic Thunder: Upstream Color and the Self

  1. Pingback: The Tuesday Zone: “Upstream Color” (2013) | Rooster Illusion

  2. I was really hoping you’d do this, and all the info was fascinating as always I’m also glad you liked the movie. Each time that I think about it, I like it a bit more.

    I also loved the scenes where Jeff keeps mistaking his memories for Kris’s. Reminded me of one of the fun(/slightly frightening) factoids you mentioned last semester about implanted memories that I got to witness literally that same day.

  3. Pingback: Trope-ic Thunder: When This Column Gets Up To 88 Miles Per Hour, You’re Going To See Some Serious Shit | Rooster Illusion

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