You may have seen commercials for Limitless, a movie opening this weekend. The trailers show a disheveled Bradley Cooper taking a pill that will allow him to use 100% of his brain instead of the 20% that everyone else putters along with. Two days later he’s a genius millionaire. Of course, this myth is known to be false but it continues to pop up in the media over and over. But that isn’t the only misinformation you’re getting from the TV.
Practically every TV series eventually has ‘the amnesia episode.’ The concept is so ingrained that it even got turned into an entire series, Samantha Who?. Inevitably, someone gets hit on the head and develops amnesia: they forget who they are, have no memory of their past, and act like completely different people. But this is nothing like amnesia in the real world. Let’s break it down:
The blow to the head. Characters have been hit on the head with a juggling club (The Addams Family) and a bucket of carrots (Mr. Ed), they’ve fallen off boats (The Bourne Identity, Overboard), and they’ve been caught in explosions and car accidents (Clean Slate, Shattered). Since these are physical accidents, the problem is likely a brain injury. Damage like this is permanent, but half the time the best solution on TV is… another blow to the head. Occasionally real-world people develop what is called functional amnesia, which is a psychological issue as opposed to a physical one, but it is usually caused by stress and gets better on its own (if ever). Sadly, people do not recover from brain damage.
Forgetting the past. After getting hit on the head, the character usually forgets his entire history. He can’t remember his name, where he lives, what he does, and whom he knows. Brain damage never does this. It does cause some loss of memory for events before the injury (called retrograde amnesia), but only for the most recent months or years. Amnesics always remember their childhood and often more, depending on how old they were at the time of the injury.
Become someone new. When all their memories are lost, TV amnesics often completely forget who they are. They either develop new tastes that are (hilariously) the opposite of what they liked before, or they become a blank slate and have to learn what they like. If you have no memory of your past this makes a certain amount of sense, but since real-life amnesics keep some past memory, there are no large shifts in personality.
Making new memories. If a car accident causes enough brain damage to cause memory loss, the disruption extends forward from the injury: it becomes difficult, if not nearly impossible, to make new memories (anterograde amnesia) for some amount of time after the accident. This is true even for ‘minor’ injuries like a concussion, but is permanent in amnesia. You almost never see this in TV or the movies; usually the character spends his time learning all about what his life was like before the injury. An exception is 50 First Dates, but they make a different mistake. Drew Barrymore’s character can make memories just fine, but loses them all when she goes to sleep. Actual amnesics don’t have a timer set to their memory; instead, their memory starts to fade when they lose focus. As long as things can be held in mind an amnesic will seem fairly normal, but they struggle when there is too much information or too much of a distraction.
The good side. Hollywood doesn’t always get it wrong. While neither movie gets it completely correct, both Memento and Finding Nemo are fairly accurate examples of amnesia. The editing style of Memento in particular makes the confusion of anterograde amnesia clear. Many movies also demonstrate that not all memories are destroyed by amnesia. The Bourne Identity shows Jason Bourne shooting guns and performing martial arts, and it isn’t far from the truth. Amnesics provide some of the strongest evidence for multiple memory systems because while they can’t remember the events of their lives, they can continue to perform skills they learned before the injury as well as learn new skills. An impressive example is Clive Wearing, who can still play the piano despite extensive brain damage that caused a deep amnesia.
We already know that not everything seen on TV is true. While some common myths have been dispelled, others tend to show up over and over like a bad penny. Amnesia is one of those bad pennies, but as science education catches up with screenwriters, hopefully that will change.
Baxendale, S. (2004). Memories aren’t made of this: amnesia at the movies BMJ, 329 (7480), 1480-1483 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1480