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Could "Severance" Actually Happen?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 02 Apr 2024

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

Severance Apple TV+
Apple TV+

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Severance Season 1.

As we eagerly await our season 2 return to Lumon Industries, several questions remain unanswered. What do the numbers mean? What really happened to Gemma? What the bleat are they doing to the baby goats?

The hit Apple TV+ sci-fi thriller has been critically acclaimed for its originality, story development, and uncomfortably familiar depictions of Corporate America drudgery. While the idea of a brain chip that wipes your memory clean every time you step into an elevator is fictional (for now), many viewers have wondered if there is a scientific possibility of “severing” memories. We’ve already seen Elon Musk’s Neuralink put a chip in someone’s brain. We know the human mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories on its own. Maybe triggering that ability is not so far-fetched.

Could “Severance” actually happen in our lifetimes? Here’s what you should know.

Could "Severance" Really Happen?

Spatially Dictated Memories

A key premise of “Severance” is that Lumon employees’ memories are spatially dictated. When a person is on the severed floor at work, they only remember their work life. When they’re outside of work, they remember their “outie” life.

Probably the closest we can approximate this is location reminders on your phone. (Or let’s be geeks and call it a geofence alert.) Your phone can suddenly “remember” something when its location data shows it’s arrived at a specific set of coordinates. But this doesn’t make sense for the brain. Needless to say, our brains don’t have geolocation capabilities. We might see something or smell something that prompts a memory, but that’s hardly what we’re talking about here. Spatially dictated memories = myth.

Context-Dependent Memory

Even if geofencing is off the table, there is scientific backing for what’s called context-dependent memory. If the environmental surroundings remind you of the last time you thought of something, you’re more likely to remember it.

A simple example is a teacher using a seating chart. As long as every student sits in the same spot every day, the teacher will likely have an easier time remembering their names. Another example is the classic thing we never forget — riding a bike. Even if you haven’t been on a bike in years, jumping back into the same context is enough to cue your muscle memory and balance.

Context is what triggers that feeling of nostalgia when you enter your grandma’s house; it’s why you might forget a combination or PIN until your fingers are ready to enter it, then suddenly the numbers come to you.

But while context can be a device that helps us remember, it doesn’t say much about the main idea of severance, which is intentionally forgetting.

Repressing Traumatic Memories

Mark’s primary motivation for severing his memory is that he’ll forget about his wife’s untimely death. Turns out this worked decently well for him as he never recognizes Ms. Casey’s true identity as Gemma, unless you maybe read into that scene when he’s sculpting the tree where Gemma’s car crashed during his wellness session.

Anyway, the idea of repressed traumatic memories traces back to Sigmund Freud, who described the process as an unconscious defense mechanism to block out intense emotional experiences. Psychologists today debate whether or not the brain can truly repress memories in the way Freud suggested, but the DSM-5 does describe dissociative amnesia, which is the selective inability to remember something beyond ordinary forgetfulness, especially when the memory is associated with trauma.

The question, then, is whether or not we can Men-in-Black style induce amnesia as a way to suppress unwanted or unhelpful memories. Unfortunately (or should we say fortunately), it’s not that easy.

Memories Are Intertwined

Memories aren’t like books where we can just rip out a few pages. Our neural pathways are overlapping and interconnected in a massively complex data web. The human brain is somehow both astoundingly capable of storing near-infinite amounts of data and shockingly unreliable in recalling the most basic information.

Think about all the knowledge you have. The names and faces of thousands of people — friends, family, celebrities, years of industry experience from your career, random trivia from your 5th grade history class. Then think about how often you can’t remember where you put something five minutes ago. Memory is complicated, to say the least.

Given this, severance could not actually happen. There is simply no scientific basis for believing memories could ever be discrete enough to selectively remove some of them. If anything, it might be possible to separate short-term and long-term memory, similarly to how dementia patients often see their short-term memories fade first, but certainly not “home life” and “work life” as on the show.

Memory Substitution

Coping mechanisms for PTSD and other traumatic mental conditions often include breathing exercises, mindfulness, and a redirection of thoughts. Some therapists describe the process as an internal conversation. “Yes, painful memory. I see you there, but I’m going to visit someone else right now.”

This leads to what some researchers have suggested as memory substitution — the conscious ability to suppress an unwanted memory and instead focus on a lighter, happier thought. The technique is perhaps better thought of as a psychological discipline than a neuroscientific reality. We can train our brains to focus on positive images, but little evidence exists that we can consciously “delete” an unwanted thought. If anything, it’s the opposite. Thinking too hard about something usually engrains it into the mind.

The Ethical Implications

If you’ve made it this far, you likely agree that truly severing our memories is impossible with our current understanding of brain science. But hey, let’s pretend that somehow in the future someone figures out how to do it.

“Severance” makes it clear that Lumon’s practice is unethical. Even in cordoning off our memories, we cannot separate our humanity. Think of Helly’s devastation when her outie says, “I’m a person, you’re not.” The irony, of course, is that severed Helly is ultimately the more authentic version of herself, considering her outie’s deep indoctrination into the Eagen cult and desperate PR stunt to earn her daddy’s approval. Our personal histories may be complicated, but it’s ultimately healthy to bring the various pieces of our identities together. So, yeah, I’m joining the anti-severance protests for sure. 

Final Thoughts

So, can severance actually happen? No. Do people really suffer from selective amnesia and try to repress unhelpful or painful memories? Yes. Should we encourage memory suppression? Well, not if you’re anything like Ms. Cobel.

Seriously, what’s her deal? Remind me to come back and update this post after we get season 2.

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Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. When he's not writing, you can find him sorting scary numbers into folders on his computer.

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