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Memory loss, dementia

AMNESIA in the movies: myth or reality?

It seems that in Hollywood AMNESIA is a favorite topic for screenwriters because it brings about an easiness in the plot where the writers can turn people and events around and make the movie more interesting. The most memorable movies where AMNESIA played a big role are: Memento (2000), Total recall (1990), The Bourne series (2002-2016), 50 first dates (2004), The Island (2005), Desperately seeking Susan (1985), Amnesiac (2014) and the list can go on and on and on.

In almost all these movies, there is a profound misconceptions and misrepresentations of this syndrome that need to be addressed.

Let’s start with a definition.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, amnesia is a loss of memory due usually to brain injury, shock, fatigue, repression, or illness.

As succinctly explained by the Mayo Clinic, the two main features of amnesia are:

  • Impaired ability to learn new information following the onset of amnesia (anterograde amnesia)
  • Impaired ability to recall past events and previously familiar information (retrograde amnesia)

Amnesia isn’t the same as dementia. Dementia often includes memory loss, but it also involves other significant cognitive problems that lead to a decline in the ability to carry out daily activities.

The most profound amnesic syndromes usually develop as a result of neurosurgery, brain infection, or a stroke. These factors are overlooked at the movies in favor of the much more dramatic head injury. Road traffic crashes and assault are the most common causes for amnesia in movie characters. Although post-traumatic amnesia is common in survivors of road crashes and assaults in the real world, the profound loss of identity and knowledge repeatedly portrayed at the movies is unrealistic and comic sometimes.

In the real world, most profound amnesic syndromes have a clear neurological or psychiatric basis. True dissociative amnesia (when a person blocks out certain information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving him or her unable to remember important personal information) are rare, but people with such conditions are able to learn new information and perform everyday tasks. The most commonly agreed features of amnesic syndromes include normal intelligence and attention span, with severe and permanent difficulties in taking in new information. Personality and identity are unaffected. These distinctions, which in a medical setting are critical in terms of prognosis and treatment, are often blurred at the movies, to enhance the spectacular.


Loss of memory in people after a certain age

In this pool of misconceptions about amnesia, three films are an exception that need to be mentioned here. In Se Quien Eres (2000) a psychiatrist treats a patient with Korsakoff’s syndrome. In this movie, you can see clearly that the writers and director have clearly done their research into the condition and there is good depiction of this syndrome.

The movie Memento (2000) also deserves a special remark. Apparently inspired partly by the neuropsychological studies of the famous patient HM (who developed severe memory injury after neurosurgery to control his epileptic seizures) and the temporal lobe amnesic syndrome, the movie portrays the difficulties faced by Leonard (the main character), who develops a severe anterograde amnesia after an attack in which his wife is killed. Unlike in most films in this genre, this amnesic character retains his identity, has little retrograde amnesia, and shows several of the severe everyday real-life memory difficulties associated with the disorder.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the most neuro-psychologically accurate portrayals of an amnesic syndrome at the movies comes not from a human character but an animated blue tropical fish. In Finding Nemo (2003) Dory is a fish with profound memory disturbance. The cause of amnesia is unclear (it will be explained later on, in the Finding Dory (2016)), but her difficulties in learning and retaining any new information, recalling names, and knowing where she is going or why are an accurate portrayal of the considerable memory difficulties faced daily by people with profound amnesic syndromes. (Good for you screenwriters! You’ve finally nailed it!) The frustration of the other fish around her with constant repetition also accurately reflects the feelings of people who live with amnesic patients. Although her condition is often played for laughs during the film, poignant aspects of her memory loss are also portrayed, when she is alone, lost, and profoundly confused. Funny but sad at the same time.

In the end, to answer the question from the title, in case you didn’t figure out my stance by now: this is Hollywood folks! Welcome to the movies! Free dreaming for all!

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