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Psychological Analysis of “The Butterfly Effect” Essay

This paper revolves around the four main psychological aspects of the 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect which are memory retrieval in Evan, trauma in the characters, depression, and Evan’s therapy. In memory we will look through the protagonist’s, Evan, past and how he represses his memory and retrieves them back as adult. In trauma we will look at the different events Evan’s friend Lenny experiences and how it affects his life and gives him traumatic disorders. Next, we will examine depressive symptoms in the character Kayleigh. Finally, we will look at the different treatments Evan’s therapist uses on him and his reasons why. I will reveal each of the role these four aspects play and relate them to the characters and the movie.

In the movie The Butterfly Effect a boy named Evan develops a unknown hereditary disease where he blacks out during very traumatic events. These blackouts eventually fade away when we moves away and he never experiences them again. One day, in college he reads an old journal from his childhood and all the old memories hit him like a brick. Within days he discovers he is able to actually go back in time and change those past traumatic events, which results in a series altered realities. In these different realities, not only do the events change, but Evan and his friends develop totally new idenities This movie mainly revolves around Evan’s memory, trauma and depression in some of the characters, and the therapy used to try to treat Evan’s illness.

In that brief summary alone you are able to see that Evan’s memory is a large part of this movie. Throughout the movies Evan goes through periods of memory repressions where he gets these uncontrollable blackouts, usually under times of heavy stress and trauma, and wakes up completely unaware of what happened. These blackouts occurred when he is participating in child pornography, killing a women and her baby, his father trying to kill him and watching his dog be burned alive.

Repressed memories are “memories of actual events that were pushed into the unconscious because they are emotionally threatening (Kosslyn and Rosenberg 2011 p.183)”. That means although these events are emotionally charged they are forgotten not because they are pushed out of awareness but because the individual mentally put them into another place in their mind.

Evan eventually moves away from this town leaving Lenny, Tommy and Kayleigh. After that we notice that these sudden blackouts disappear and when he goes to college he is able to live a normal life. Until, he reads one of his old journals and all the old memories come back to him and he is able vividly experience them through a process known as memory retrieval. He is even able to go back in time and change his actions. Although this obviously is not possible in real life, it is an example of a study that shows that, “as we try to recall something our brain works to match the brain state we had during the event we are remembering (DeNoon 2005)”, so when your brain state matches the state in your memory you’ll remember it a lot easier.

This study is true in Evan’s case, because has he read through his journal entries he, in a sense, put himself into his teenage shoes and is able to visualize that exact moment he is reading. Therefore, a person’s emotion can affect a their memory retrieval. “(It is) much like when you try to remember where you put your keys last night, if you recall that you were washing dishes, that might trigger associated memories, leading you to remember that your keys are next to the sink (DeNoon 2005)”.

Evan also develops implicit memories during his frat boy lifestyle reality. Implicit memories are memories “that cannot be retrieved voluntarily but rather predispose a person to process information or behave certain ways in the presence of specific stimuli (Kosslyn and Rosenberg 2011 p.169)”.

In this altered reality Evan becomes the leader of a fraternity and one of the popular jocks, a totally different persona compared to his hardworking, shy behavior in the first reality. Yet, even though it is still normal Evan switching through different realities he starts to involuntarily develop these habits the fraternity persona would do, like cheat on tests and bully younger students. These actions and personalities he developed is an example of a type of implicit memory known as habits. Cheating on his psychology test and yelling at one of his pledges was a well-learned response that is carried out automatically.

The next topic the movie portrays is trauma in the character Lenny. Lenny is most affected by two traumatic events shown in the movie, the first is when he accidentally blows up a mailbox killing a mother and her baby and the second is when he kills Tommy during one of Evan’s interactive memory. After those experiences Lenny develops clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnosis of PSTD is decided when three conditions are met.

First, the person experiences an event that involves an injury or death and Lenny clearly experienced death through murdering the mother and baby, and killing Tommy. Next, the traumatized person responds to the situation with fear, which Lenny shows from the utter shock after the mailbox blows up and he becomes so afraid of what he has done that he collapses and ends up in hospitalized.

Lenny shows “persistent avoidance of anything associated with the trauma (Kosslyn and Rosenberg 2011 p.420)”. This explains why Lenny, after so many years, was still in his room building model airplanes after Evan goes back home to him. Also, when Evan asks Lenny to described what happened during that event Lenny violently threatens him to kill him if he ever mentions it again. Model airplanes is a hobby he enjoys and it helps keep him distracted from all his thoughts, which is why his room contained over one hundred models. If he keeps himself preoccupied with the model planes, those thoughts of killing the mother will never cross his mind.

Not only does Lenny and his model airplane hobby distract him from the trauma but it also show a very distinct relationship between dissociation and trauma. Constance J. Dalenburg conducted an experiment which shows “that there is strong empirical support for the hypothesis that trauma causes dissociation (a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or even from the body), and that dissociation remains related to trauma history when fantasy proness is controlled (Dalenberg 2012)”.

After experiencing the two traumas Lenny enters a dreamlike state where he completely separates himself from the world by staying in his room all day and doing nothing else. Even when Evan comes to visit him in his bedroom or in the insane asylum he never displays any emotions, speak to him or even acknowledge he is there. During the dog blackout Lenny witnessed Tommy burning Evan’s dog alive and Tommy told him, “if you tell anyone, I’ll slit your throat”.

Lenny was discharged from the hospital just before that occurred and before Evan called him out to play we can see Lenny was busy working on a model airplane. Therefore, we can conclude that Lenny makes these model airplanes, stays in his room all day and even keeps his room exactly the same (which we can see because he still race car bed) because he trying to distance himself from reality and mentally revert back to the exact time before he witnessed Evan’s dog being burned alive.

The third topic faced in the movie is depression. Kayleigh and Evan go through periods of depression through three different altered realities of the movie. In the first altered reality Evan goes back to his hometown and finds Kayleigh working as waitress, in the next altered reality Kayleigh becomes a hooker after Evan goes back and accidentally kills Tommy, and in the last reality Evan loses his arms and legs along with the love of his life, Kayleigh to Lenny. The four main symptoms of major depressive disorder (depression) shown throughout these scenes were insomnia and tiredness, heavy sadness, feeling of hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide.

In the first reality Kayleigh shows physical signs of insomnia and tiredness. Physically, you can tell by her sluggish movements and heavy bags under her eyes that she is not getting enough rest. She then goes on to shout at him saying, “nothing’s ever going to get better Evan, nothing ever gets better”. This quote and the fact that she is just a waiter shows the feeling of hopelessness and how she believes there is no real future and she will never be truly happy due to her traumatizing past.

This feeling of hopelessness might have occurred after Evan moved away from her, causing her to have no one else to rely on. That change can also cause depression because when change occurs, stress happens. “Significant levels of stress can result from any important life change, but people vary considerably in the ways they respond to change in their lives…

Their reactions depend on their resources and the contexts in which stress occurs. If you have the money, time, and friends to help you pick up and go on after a disruption, you will certainly fare better (Mcgregor 2006)”, all of which Kayleigh doesn’t have anymore, leading her to developed depression. Kayleigh also cries and yell at Evan for bringing up old memories, a potential sign of heavy sadness. Finally, Evan finds out the next day that Kayleigh committed suicide, (thoughts of suicide) which is the last symptom of clinical depression.

In the second reality Evan finds Kayleigh in a run down motel room as hooker with a drug addiction. Kayleigh is portraying signs of worthlessness in her body because of the sexual acts she is involved in to receive money. Due the sexual abuse she received from her father she now feels her body is dirty or damaged making her believe she in unworthy of being treated as a normal person.

This is a big contribution to her low self esteem and her drug abuse issue. Not only does she feel used but the abuse she suffered from her dad, the first true male role model in her life, leaves her to feel that people will always hurt her. You can see her environment plays a big role in her depression because in the final altered reality, she lives in a nurturing environment with her mother and is finally happy which leads her live to a normal happy life and a better career.

In the final reality Evan loses his arms and legs after trying to save the mom and child from the explosion. During that scene Evan sees Kayleigh run up to Lenny and kiss him. You can tell from his facial expression he was feeling sadness and remorse over not being with her when he knows he could be. After losing his arms and legs, Evan realizes life for him is hopeless, and he can never amount to anything because he doesn’t arms or Kayleigh, so that sign of worthlessness is once again showing. Evan tries to drown himself in the movie, showing those thoughts of suicide. Evan shows a clear example of Aaron Beck’s “negative cognitive triads of depression”.

“The triad consists of: a negative view of the world, a negative view of the self, and a negative view of the future (Kosslyn and Rosenberg 2011 p.412)”. Evan views the world as unfair because of his missing limbs, his disability leave him to think his life pointless, and he know his future is nothing without Kayleigh and his limbs.

Finally, there was some use of psychological strategies and therapy techniques Evan’s therapist uses to try to find a way to diagnose and solve this rare disease. The first treatment Evan’s therapist tried was hypnosis. The therapist tried to calm Evan, then told him to recollect his memory of that mailbox event and “play, rewind, and pause it like a movie”. Hypnosis did not work in Evan’s case, instead only causing nose bleeds and headaches . As a child, when his mom first realizes something is wrong Evan is given a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan to look for anything wrong in his brain structure.

Yet, they were not able to find anything wrong with his brain. The most effective method used was asking Evan to keep a journal of his daily life. Journals are commonly used and is an example of one of “Beck’s cognitive therapy techniques” which is “the process of helping clients view their situation in a new light (Kosslyn and Rosenberg 2011 p.420)”. This method proves to be affective because it helps Evan solve the root of his black outs and realize he is able to go back in time during those blackouts and control his past body, preventing certain stimuli.

In conclusion, you can see that The Butterfly Effect portrays a lot of psychological facts and disorders because of all the traumatic events these young children went through. The biggest aspect of The Butterfly Effect is the different types of memory Evan uses in the movie, like repression, retrieval, and implicit. The main idea of the movie is that one tiny change can completely alter the future and we clearly see that through the different identity each character goes through in the movie.

In some realities Lenny is forced to live life alone and in fear under his extreme post traumatic stress disorder due to all the traumatic events. In two realities Kayleigh goes through symptoms of depression, like sadness, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, and feelings of hopelessness due to factors like her sexual abuse and hostile environment. Each event the characters
went through plays a drastic role on how they turned out, which shows that a lot of our life is really not under our control.


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