Neurophilosophy

Amnesia in the movies

Despite occuring only rarely, amnesia (or memory loss) has featured often in Hollywood films for almost a century. By 1926, at least 10 silent films which used amnesia as a plot device had been made; more recent productions, such as 50 First Dates and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are therefore part of a well established tradition.  

In a review published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale of the Institute of Neurology in London points out that cinematic depictions of amnesia are consistenly inaccurate, and usually “bear no relation whatsoever to any authentic neurological or psychiatric condition”.

In her review, Baxendale examines common misconceptions of amnesia found in the cinema, and suggests that knowledge of them can guide clinicians when informing patients and their relatives about diagnoses. She also points out several exceptional films which depict amnesic syndromes accurately. 

In the romantic comedy 50 First Dates (2004), Adam Sandler plays veterinarian Henry Roth, who falls for Lucy Whitmore (played by Drew Barrymore) after meeting her in a cafe one morning. The two hit it off, and arrange to meet again. The following day, Roth returns to the café to meet her, but she claims to have no recollection of him. As he leaves, the owner of the café takes him to one side, and explains that Whitmore “lost her short-term memory” after a “terrible car accident”. We also learn that she can form new memories during the day, which are then wiped clean during her sleep, so that she wakes up to a “clean slate” every morning.



50 First Dates propagates a number of misconceptions which are common in the films which refer to amnesia. Whitmore’s amnesia is the result of a head injury incurred in the car accident; other amnesic characters may lose their memory after being assaulted, or bumping their head in some other way. In reality, memory loss rarely occurs following a head injury; it is most often caused by stroke, brain infection or neurosurgery. The idea that new memories are wiped clean at night is also unrealistic, and unlike any documented amnesic syndrome.   

In many cases of cinematic amnesia, head injuries lead to loss of memory of earlier events (retrograde amnesia), but the character usually goes on to lead an otherwise normal life. Real patients who incur brain damage usually suffer from anterograde amnesia – they lose the ability to form new memories, but their memories of events that occured before the amnesia often remain intact. Often they lose memories of many important aspects of their lives – of loved ones and daily routines – and so day-to-day functioning is affected severely.   

Amnesic film characters often undergo personality changes or a loss of identity. This  confuses amnesia with a poorly-understood condition called dissociative fugue. It also blurs the distinction between the causes of the different amnesic syndromes, as the characters  experience psychiatric symptoms, which in reality do not have an organic cause, which are attributed to neurological damage.




Personality changes after a head injury can be seen in the 1987 film Overboard, starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Hawn plays a rich and spoilt socialite who loses here memory after bumping her head when falling from her yacht. The character then undergoes a sudden transformation – she becomes warm-hearted and loving and is duped into raising the children of Russel’s character as her own. Her memory loss, like that of most other characters, is readly reversible – towards the end of the film, it is cured by another bump on the head. In others, the memories return when they see a familiar object or person. Both of these scenarios are equally implausible.

Memento (2000) is a rare example of a film which depicts amnesia accurately. It is apparently inspired in part by the case of Henry Molaison (H.M.), the famous amnesic who died last December. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, who suffers severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining a head injury in an attack in which his wife is killed. Unlike most amnesic characters, Leonard retains his identity and the memories of events that occurred before the attack, but loses all ability to form new memories. The film’s fragmented narrative powerfully depicts how difficult everyday life would be for a severely amnesic patient – Leonard spends much of the film frantically scribbling scraps of information on pieces of paper and, once he has estalished something to be a fact, has it tattooed onto his body.

Another accurate depiction of amnesia is found in the CGI-animated film Finding Nemo (2003). One of the characters, a reef fish called Dory, has a profound memory deficit which, to frustration of her peers, prevents her from learning or retaining any new information, remembering names, or knowing where she is going. As a result, she gets lost when left alone and is often found in a state of confusion. The exact origin of Dory’s impairment is not mentioned in the film, but her memory loss accurately reflects the difficulties faced by amnesic patients and those who know them.




Realistic amnesic characters are few and far between in the cinema. Baxendale refers to only one other film, called Se Quien Eres (I Know Who You Are, 2000), containing an accurate depiction of amnesia, in the form of a patient with Korsakoff’s Syndrome, the amnesic syndrome condition associated with chronic alcoholism. However, Columbia Pictures announced last month it has acquired the rights to make a film about the life of H.M., based on a book which is to be written by Susanne Corkin, the MIT researcher who worked with him for 4 years.

On a related subject is Rashomon (1950), Akira Kurosawa’s masterful examination of the reconstructive nature memory Rashomon depicts a crime as seen from the perspective of four eyewitnesses. As each gives their testimony, the same event is described in four radically different ways. Each of the testimonies contradicts the others, and each of the witnesses initially insists that their version of the event is the right one. Then, as they consider each others’ descriptions, something which at first seemed clear becomes utterly confusing, as all the characters and the audience begin to question the accuracy of their own memories.



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Baxendale, S. (2004). Memories aren’t made of this: amnesia at the movies. BMJ 329: 1480-1483. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1480.

Comments

  1. #1 Hesitant Iconoclast
    March 2, 2009

    Good post. Aside from those you’ve mentioned, it has been a long time since I saw a movie that accurately depicts a mental health or neurological condition. The last time was the famous Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman-starrer Rain Main, that depicted autism.

    It would be nice to see a lot more accurate and responsible (sensitive) portrayals of mental conditions in the movies. Film is a widespread and popular medium that doesn’t yet seem to have realised it’s own responsibility to educate as well as entertain.

  2. #2 Shevonne
    March 2, 2009

    Now I have to to wonder if I have seen a movie that represented amnesia in the proper way.

  3. #3 Heather
    March 3, 2009

    Great post! And well-researched. I now feel the need to go out and see Rashomon rather than the clearly derivative “Vantage Point”.

  4. #4 Mo
    March 3, 2009

    Hi Heather. Glad you liked the post. You can watch the whole film on your computer: click through to Google Video, choose the full screen option, then sit back and enjoy…

    It would of course be much better watching the film in a cinema, but it might be difficult finding one that is showing it.

  5. #5 Heraclides
    March 3, 2009

    The film that immediately came to mind to me was Memento, which I loved. Nice to hear that you think it is a realistic portrayal of memory loss.

  6. #6 Karyn Romeis
    March 3, 2009

    If our recent Twitter exchanges have made a blip on your radar, you will understand why the subject of memory is quite an important issue for me at the moment, and why I found this post so interesting. I was tickled that you opted to include Finding Nemo among the movies you considered. I seem to recall that at one point, Dory mentions that memory problems run in her family… at least she thinks they do. Perhaps it’s no more than a poke at the ‘goldfish only have a 7 second memory span’ thing (even though she’s not a goldfish, of course).

    The thing that hit me hard about Memento is the protagonist’s awareness of his memory problem and his desperate attempts to compensate for it. At the risk of giving away the plot to any who are now planning to go and watch it, there is also the sinister twist as you realise that there are times when he exercises the choice not to retain a piece of information because it would remove his whole raison d’être.

    I am fascinated by the possibilities of conscious and subconscious choice associated with memory loss. For example, if I understand it correctly, there are forms of amnesia which result from the subconscious desire to blot out a certain memory or series of memories. I also knew a man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who regularly forgot to do the less pleasant things. Perhaps he was using his condition as an excuse to get out of doing things like clearing the lawn of dog poo, but it seemed fairly genuine. I wonder to what extent some forms of amnesia are under the control (conscious or otherwise) of the individual.

  7. #7 A.K.
    March 3, 2009

    “Memento” is an amazing film. Deeply, deeply disturbing to say the least. Another favourite of mine, although not (strictly speaking) about amnesia, is “Groundhog Day”. The two would make a great double bill for a home movie night.

  8. #8 scicurious
    March 3, 2009

    Great post! My brain awareness group has been doing movie nights for a while, where we show a relatively accurate depiction of memory loss, brain damage, autism, schizophrenia, or some other disorder, and then have a panel of expert talk to the audience. I hadn’t thought of using “Finding Nemo”. We’re always looking for new ones.

  9. #9 Mike Mason
    March 3, 2009

    Oh My Gosh!! You mean the Gilligan’s Island episode where their memory came or went every time someone got hit on the head with a coconut wasn’t medically accurate?

  10. #10 Anibal
    March 4, 2009

    Cinema (symbolically and technically) represents in an accurate form many of the phenomenological realities our physical brains fabricate: time and movement, and in turn, memory.

    Brilliant post!

  11. #11 matt
    March 4, 2009

    There’s an interesting account in the NY Times recently of a young woman’s bout of dissociative fugue, and they actually draw analogy to the Bourne trilogy in trying to explain the disorder. The link you provided for dissociative fugue does describe it as “episodes of amnesia.” I’m curious what you mean by “psychiatric symptoms, which do not have an organic cause,” since as a neuroscientist I would guess that you attribute all cognition, both normal and abnormal, to some underlying biological processes.

  12. #12 Mo
    March 4, 2009

    Matt: Of course I am of the opinion that all thought processes, emotions, etc. have a neural basis. By “organic cause”, I mean brain damage.

  13. #13 aberron
    March 4, 2009

    Thank you for these wonderful posts :-)

  14. #14 Phoebe
    March 5, 2009

    Really interesting post, thank you.

    I don’t believe that movies *ought* to be accurate to neuroscience any more than to physics, history, politics, etc. Each movie creates its own reality – and I’m just as compelled by good fantasies as by good documentaries.

    That said, movies do have the potential to impart information (among many other types of education) and those that do deserve to be recognized and praised as such.

  15. #15 Will
    March 9, 2009

    For my cognitive psychology class at the University of Minnesota we had to analyze Memento. Like you I thought it was pretty good, but I had a few complaints:

    As far as Hollywood goes, the movie Memento provides an entertaining way to explore a cognitive deficit. Theses deficits are never correctly explained in the movies nor are they correctly displayed, but some movies are better than others. Ignoring the flaws in the explanation for Leonard’s deficits in Memento, the movie is a decent exploration of anterograde amnesia.

    The main character, Leonard Shelby, explains his condition as a deficit in short term memory and specifically states that his condition is not anterograde amnesia. His understanding of his condition is clearly mistaken. Like H.M., Clive Wearing, and Jimmy G., Leonard has anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories (hippocampal removal, encephalitis, Korsakoff’s Syndrome, traumatic brain injury, respectively).

    The difference between the above patients and Leonard is the extent of their working memory (WM). Leonard’s WM is expansive whereas Clive Wearing’s is maybe 10-20 seconds. In some scenes in the beginning of the movie he has no trouble remembering something for many minutes as long as he is uninterrupted. This is contrary to Goldstein (2008) who states that Short-Term Memory will last for 15-20 seconds.

    Leonard explains that a difference between himself and Sammy Jankis is that he has the ability to condition new memories. His ability to be conditioned to take a picture, write on the picture, look at and read the pictures whenever a new stimulus is presented is an extremely complex task that is doubtfully something that could be added to a procedural memory task. The amount of conditioned stimuli would be immense and the task itself seems too complex and conscious to be a conditioned response (I think the most complex conditioned responses I have seen are dances that pigeons must do to receive a piece of food – though I am sure there are more complex).

    Near the end of the movie the viewer gets more and more hints that Sammy Jankis’ and Leonard Shelby’s stories are being conflated by Leonard. Leonard is told by Teddy that he has already killed John G and has the picture of Leonard pointing to the spot on his chest where the “I’ve Done It” tattoo should go; Teddy tells him about Leonard’s wife being the diabetic and the viewer sees Sammy in the hospital change momentarily to Leonard after a doctor passes.

    It seems that since Leonard has anterograde amnesia he shouldn’t be able to distort his memory via misleading postevent information, but distorting it based on some slight retrograde amnesia and a source monitoring error are still possible. The movie leaves the viewer somewhat in the dark; do we believe the person who has severe memory deficits or the person who has had a mixed relationship with Leonard, both helping and manipulating.

    The movie unintentionally illustrates anterograde amnesia quite well. The implausibilities of the character and his life provide for a good story and one that makes it somewhat believable. The difficulties one might have in critically examining it are the extent of conditioning that would have to take place for Leonard to be functional and the expansive WM that Leonard exploits. A careful twist in the story that makes use of the fallibility of memory (that Leonard actually explains at a diner earlier in the movie) makes the story more interesting and lets it linger in your mind for further contemplation.

  16. #16 shlogblog
    March 16, 2009

    Donnie Darko for its portrayal of schizophrenia!

  17. #17 Lisa
    March 19, 2009

    I just have to state that your comment: “Whitmore’s amnesia is the result of a head injury incurred in the car accident; other amnesic characters may lose their memory after being assaulted, or bumping their head in some other way. In reality, memory loss rarely occurs following a head injury; it is most often caused by stroke, brain infection or neurosurgery” is BLASTED WRONG!!

    I work with people with brain injuries in their homes to teach them the life skills they need to be independent and functional adults in their local communities.

    They absolutely have had a head injury.

    They absolutely have memory loss.

    They have not necessarily suffered from stroke or neurosurgery, although these can cause brain injury.

    I work with one gentleman whose brain injury is so severe, his memory lasts less than 10 minutes on a good day. Think ‘ten second tim’ from 50 First Dates. He thinks it’s 1994. He thinks he lives in a different town. He thinks Terrapin Station is a real place.

    Please, rethink what you state!

  18. #18 Bob
    May 27, 2009

    No way Sigmund! The next thing you’ll be telling me is that Laurence Olivier portrayal of a dentist in Marathon Man wasn’t accurate, or that Gone With the Wind wasn’t a documentary.

  19. #19 Jim
    October 15, 2009

    Lisa,
    Anterograde amnesia is mostly the result of a stroke. The statement is correct. Most memory synapses and sequence in your brain are not on the edges and therefore an injury resulting in memory loss and amnesia would have to be severe enough to almost certainly lead to many forms of brain damage, not just memory loss. When talking about memory loss as in anterograde amnesia, by itself, strokes ARE the main cause and when talking about retrograde amnesia, the usual cause is traumatic events. Very rarely can head injuries result in only memory loss without causing compounding other problems. So these cases are generally separated from the typical amnesia case

  20. #20 Crazy Mermaid
    January 1, 2010

    As I cast my mind back to my manic state, everything plays before me as if I were watching a movie. The lens of mania, complete with psychedelic colors as well as other sensory perceptions (amplified beyond anyone’s wildest imagination) are available for total and instant recall, tatooed onto my brain as if it were yesterday. The delusions of my mind somehow short-circuited my short-term memory and went directly into long-term storage. Very interesting.

  21. #21 Elizabeth
    July 5, 2010

    I am reading your post because I have a daughter with retrograde amnesia. I always notice the same phrase in articles similiar to yours, “very rarely can head injuries result in only memory loss without causing compound other problems. You state these cases are generally separated from the typical amnesia case.” This statement at least supports the theory that there are cases out there, but that they are few and far between. These are the cases I’m trying to research, but having difficulty finding them on the web. Do you have any suggestions on direction in where I might find such information? My daughter suffered two concussions four years apart, and is not affected cognatively but is suffering a three year memory gap after the second accident. I am very interested in getting her in to a research program but there is no information of such a place and would love any advise that you may have. We live in the Dallas, Texas area, but would be willing to take her where ever is necessary to get her the help she needs. As her parents we know her amnesia is athentic, but cannot find anyone who specializes in this type of amnesia. Please contact me with any sites or suggestions. Thanks so much for your time.

  22. #22 Raging Bee
    July 9, 2010

    I’m guessing your failure to mention the “Bourne” storyline means you don’t consider that particular retrograde-amnesia scenario plausible at all?

  23. #23 Peter
    March 23, 2011

    My favorite amnesia movie is Memento. Disturbing and riveting at the same time.