Cognitive Daily

Unknown White Male

i-03ed1b3b71be739dc52ed6ce89ff08d1-uwm.jpgWhat’s it like to have all your memories erased? Well, not all your memories, because if that happened, you’d simply be like a newborn infant, and you’d have to relearn everything. The more interesting scenario is to lose only certain memories — the memories that most people think of as “true” memories: episodic memory.

Memories can be divided into three rough categories: episodic, semantic, and procedural (there are actually many more categories). Procedural memories are the memories of how to do things: driving a car, walking, sewing, and so on. Semantic memories are bits of factual knowledge: names, places, meanings. Episodic memories consist of the explicit recollection of specific events: prom night, my trip to Monument Valley, and so on.

A few nights ago, Greta and I watched the movie Unknown White Male, which purports to be a true case history of a 33-year-old man, Doug Bruce, who suddenly and inexplicably lost his entire episodic memory and much of his semantic memory. In fact, the movie demonstrates the inadequacy of such categories — what, for example, is the memory of the concept “ocean”? In one sense, it’s purely semantic: an ocean is a large body of salt water. But when Bruce visits the ocean for the first time following his amnesia, he is overwhelmed with a vast array of new sensations, from the sound and power of the surf, to the water filtering the soft sand through his feet. This particular ocean visit could become an episodic memory, but isn’t there a semantic aspect to the power of the surf? Bruce can’t remember whether or not he can swim, but when he dives into the water, he quickly realizes he can stroke effortlessly through the waves. Is all knowledge of swimming procedural, or are there finer points of such knowledge, such as “keep your elbows up” better characterized as semantic?

In some ways, these distinctions are irrelevant, but in others they are the key to understanding Bruce’s condition. What does it mean to “lose your memory”? Why can he still drive a car, retain his aptitude and interest in photography, but lose all knowledge or interest in cricket, a sport of which he had been an avid fan his entire life?

Typically amnesia is the result of physical trauma and is a rare, temporary condition; individuals such as Doug Bruce with no evidence of injury are exceedingly rare. Indeed, amnesia is often used as a plot device for film or books — it’s an intriguing concept, but one rarely seen in real life. Even more unusual is for the condition to continue as long as it has in Bruce’s case — over two years. It seems that a more plausible explanation of his case is that he’s faking it.

Yet if Bruce (with, or without the complicity of the filmmakers) is perpetrating a fraud on us, it’s an effective one. Renowned neuroscientist Dan Schacter is convinced, and lends his expertise to the film in a series of interviews explaining key concepts of memory and amnesia. His doctors, his friends, his family all genuinely believe Bruce has lost his memory. Indeed, if he is merely reconstructing the impression of being amnesic, he’s doing it so effectively that there’s little point in speculating as to whether he’s truly experiencing the astonishing phenomena he reports in the film.

When it snows for the first outside Bruce’s New York apartment, he videotapes it with the wonderment of a child. He rushes down to the street and picks up a handful as if he’d never experience such a substance, crushing it in his hand, amazed at its frigid malleability. When he meets friends and family for the first time after the event, it’s as if he’s meeting them for the first time. “You look just like your picture,” he tells a friend of 20 years.

I do have one quibble with the science depicted in the film. The doctors tell Bruce there is a 95 percent chance he’ll eventually get his memory back, and the filmmaker reports this back to the audience as if it’s established scientific fact. In reality, there’s no way they can indicate his odds with such precision: 95 percent simply reflects the concept of statistical significance. Researchers in this field will say a result is significant if they are replicable at least 95 percent of the time. His chances are likely better than 95 percent, but there’s no way to give his chances with any better precision.

Despite these limitations, the film is a fascinating exploration of the experience of having retrograde amnesia. Even more fascinating is the fact that Bruce began filming himself just a few days after losing his memory, so we have a nearly complete record of a two-year period where we watch Bruce try to rebuild his life. It offers a profound exploration of the impact of amnesia, on both the victim and his friends and family. It leaves the viewer with nearly as many questions as answers about what amnesia must be like, but I view that as a good thing: we should be thinking about such things, if only to be thankful that amnesia is so rare.


  1. #1 David
    March 23, 2006

    The Washington Post had an excellent story on Wednesday that raises some questions about this amnesia story.

  2. #2 coturnix
    March 23, 2006

    I heard a review on NPR a few days ago and as I was listening to it I was wondering if you woudl have something to say about it.

  3. #3 Casper Hulshof
    March 23, 2006

    Slightly off-topic, but still. “Researchers in this field will say a result is significant if they are replicable at least 95 percent of the time.” — Actually, this is one of the common fallacies about null hypothesis testing. Another common fallacy is to think the .05 cut-off represents the probability a given result would occur by ‘chance’.
    If the 95% remark in the movie demonstrates one thing, it is that probabilities really do not mean anything, and that frequencies do (such as “About 1 in 20 of the people suffering from the same condition make a full recovery.”)

  4. #4 Dana Leighton
    March 24, 2006

    Regarding the Washington Post story, I wonder why no-one is suggesting a Dissociative Disorder, or whether he has been assessed by a psychiatrist familiar with complex dissociative disorders. I know Cognitive Daily deals with cognition, not clinical psychology, but this kind of state seems (although rare) to be consistent with a combination of Dissociative Amnesia and Dissociative Fugue. The DSM-IV (1994, pre-TR) gives the diagnostic criteria for Dissociative Fugue as:

    A. The predominant disturbance is sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one’s customary place of work, with inability to recall one’s past.

    B. Confusion about personal identity or assumption of a new identity (partial or complete).

    C. The disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of Dissociative Identity Disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy).

    D. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

    Although Dissociative Fugue typically lasts days or weeks before recovering the memories, there are apparently case reports of longer-term Fugue reactions.

    Dana C. Leighton, Psychology Instructor
    Tri-County Technical College, Pendleton, SC

  5. #5 sarah
    April 7, 2006

    Being personally acquainted at very close quarters with someone afflicted with the same problem as Doug, i can assure you that this condition is genuine, it is possible to lose all your autobiographical memory, but to know how to do mechanical routine actions ( brushing your teeth etc) and not to know whether you can swim or not!
    Poor guy – we have read interviews with him and it is all too sickeningly familiar.

  6. #6 Todd
    October 12, 2006

    After a car accident, I Acquired a Traumatic Brain Injury and it was classified as Severe. I’ve gone through all types of therapy at Shepherd Center and Shepherd Pathways in Atlanta, GA, USA and was taught how to form words with my clumsy mouth and how NOT to write backwards. However, my WAIS-III score is outstanding, suggesting that my intelligence survived the injury. And, even with all my difficulty with language, I’ve been described as “exceptionally fluent”. The moral of the story is this: just like “rhetoric” and “irony”, amnesia is an amazing aspect of the human experience that’s difficult to pin down or pen in . . .. But, I’m doing an assignment for my English Composition 101 class on amnesia and I’m desperate for a definition in a thousand words. The Deific Scroll of Mind-weavery (DSM) just confused me. Can anyone help?

  7. #7 David Bartholomew
    January 8, 2007

    I just saw the “Unknown White Male” documentary and have been browsing the net for commentary pro or con. I have seen the fraud theories and heard one proposed that an fMRI test could perhaps convince that this is indeed a fake or not. I had seen that mentioned once with no follow-up since. Just wondering if anyone knows of any other developments in the current thought as to the authenticity of this story and resolution of any of the possible glitches put forth?

    As has been said by others, regardless of authenticity, I believe it is thought-provoking in a number of ways and take it for that. But the Pollyanna in me would at least like to be comforted that someone wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to perpetuate a myth, especially as this one would be responsible for karma on pulling this on family and friends.

  8. #8 L K Tucker
    February 28, 2007

    I did not see the movie but I know the filmmakers did not suggest one possible source of Dissociative Fugue and memory loss, Subliminal Distraction.

    Cases of fugue with amnesia of the events during the episode began to happen in 1880’s France. The victims were artisans, shop keepers, and other knowledge workers.

    In 1953 there was an outbreak at Miami of Ohio. Several students disappeared then returned with amnesia of the events during their episode. Ron Tammen the last to disappear is still missing. There is circumstantial evidence that he was a victim of Subliminal Distraction. Pictures of his study area, an unprotected desk, in a tiny room exist as adobe files posted by the Library at Miami University.

    There is a long list of missing students. Some still return. Ahmad Arain, UCLA, was found wandering in Mexico in an altered mental state.

    The level of memory loss and its length appear to be caused by the intensity and length of exposure. Recoveries have happened in months, years, or rarely never.

  9. #9 Johan
    December 4, 2007

    Yeah, I would like to see him tested to prove he can’t remember stuff for real… is that so hard? Well, maybe it’s too late because he has now developed new memory of things and it’s maybe hard to destinguish between the two, the new and the old lost memory, if doing a scan?

    I know there is a norwegian documentary that will be released soon with the exact same plot. They showed parts of it on swedish television last week, together with Unknown White Male and the movie Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this new one a norwegian hippie-looking guy wakes up on a train(!) somewhere in China with memory only of his last six weeks when he was in China. No memory of his family or anything. This too sounds “too good” to be true. But I want to believe this; that is why I want these people to go through with some kind of test to validate the authenticity, if that is possible!

    Could this be drug related? People have lost memory when taking psychoactive drugs, right?

  10. #10 Johan
    December 4, 2007

    Not that I would think they were tripping going by public train like that or anything… it was just a thought, the norwegian guy looking like a hippie and reading the post above, about the missing students of whom one was wandering in Mexico with an altered state of mind… maybe totally different things though… Anyway… I want some clarity to this amazing phenomenon!

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