Amnesia: Right. Of course.

On the episode of This American Life entitled “How to Rest In Peace,” host Ira Glass begins the show by saying the following:

“This is one of those things that you’ve probably never heard, but as soon as somebody tells you, you’re like, ‘Right, of course.’ You know how murder figures into so much of American pop culture? On crime shows and thrillers and video games, and all kinds of stuff? Well if you knew somebody who actually got murdered, it turns out you might not be into that stuff so much.”

Right. Of course.

Rachel Howard, whose father was murdered, talks about how she can’t watch Law & Order or play Clue or go to a murder mystery dinner theatre. She makes the very obvious point that they don’t have rape mystery dinners, where people show up and have to try to discover who the rapist is. “Everybody would feel that was deeply distasteful,” she says.

Right. Of course.

And yet murder is pop-culture fodder.

In Act 3 of another episode of the show that I listened to recently entitled “The Friendly Man,” Scott Carrier sets out to discover if amnesia really exists.

After randomly asking people on the street and in the grocery store if they’d ever had amnesia, he comes up short (save the odd story of concussions or drug hazes), so he seeks out a psychologist, hoping for more insight into amnesia.

The psychologist can only tell one, anecdotal, story of amnesia, about a fellow service member during Vietnam. This is a psychologist—who can’t recount one clinical case of amnesia? A psychologist who can’t provide references to any clinical cases of amnesia? Or even recommend a book on the topic?

Excellent research skills there, Scott.

At one point Scott asks the psychologist if he had the power to flip a switch and invoke amnesia—“you won’t remember your name, you won’t remember who you are”—whether he would do it. Would he flip the switch? The psychologist laughs in response and turns the question back on Scott, who says that he would want to do it, because then he would lose his ego and he would have a clean slate. He says that is sounds attractive to him, that it would be a good thing: “I think I would be smart enough to realize that this is a gift.”

I echo the doctor’s response: “Give me a goddamned break!”

Having come up short again, Scott decides to try and induce his own amnesia. He goes to a hypnotherapist and asks if she could hypnotize him to forget everything about himself and his life. He’d like to do it for hours, or days, but she convinces him to do it for just a half an hour and to limit the things he will “forget” to just a few.

Of course the hypnosis fails; he remembers everything.

Scott seems to conclude that real amnesia is extremely rare and wonders if the reason it is so pervasive on television and in the movies is because it’s a story we want to be true. “Everybody loves the idea of a second chance,” he says, “of starting over without the burden of the past. I think that’s why amnesia is in so many movies and TV shows and romance novels—we somehow want to believe in it.”

I know that it is hard to be aware of all of the things in this world that we should be sensitive towards. It makes sense that murder should not be fun and games and entertainment, but it’s not something you really think about until it’s pointed out to you by someone like Rachel Howard.

I cringe at the thought of anyone listening to Scott Carrier’s story and coming to the conclusion that “real” amnesia does not exist. My stomach turns at the thought of anyone romanticizing amnesia, being so callous, uninformed, naïve, and ignorant as to consider it a good thing, a “clean slate,” a “second chance,” a way of “starting over,” or “a gift.”

Amnesia is not a gift. It does not clean anything. Rather, it causes indelible psychological and emotional trauma for the sufferer and their loved ones, and often life-long disability, depending on the type. As someone who has suffered the amnesia of a loved one, I will hopefully make some people say, “Right. Of course.”

First, a little about the different types of memory.

Sensory memory refers to information about a stimulus that is held in memory—in the exact form in which it was experienced—for only a few seconds until it can be further processed. For example, a visual stimulus is stored in the sensory memory as a “picture.” The brain has yet to process such information.

Short-term memory refers to memories that last for a few minutes. Unlike sensory memory, the brain has already processed short-term memories in some way. So that visual stimulus may still be seen as a picture, but will also be stored as an abstract concept.

People can generally keeping about five to nine items in their short-term memory at one time before new information bumps it out. But, short-term memory can hold information in chunks. As we know from the example of phone numbers, ten digits can easily be remembered in three small chunks.

BrainWe are capable of storing information in our short-term memories for longer periods of time through repetition. If you need to remember a phone number, you repeat it to yourself over and over again. Once you’ve written it down, or dialed it, or just forget to repeat it to yourself, it will usually fade. Repetition can also increase the probability that information will move from short-term memory into long-term memory.

Long-term memory lasts for years or longer. Everything we know about the world and about ourselves, language, etc. are all long-term memories. Long-term memory is stored, organized, and retrieved via a number of different routes and systems in the brain. For example, you may retrieve the concept of “sun” by seeing the sun, feeling its warmth, seeing or hearing the word (or the word “son”), etc.

Most types of memory appear to be stored in the cortex, with different kinds of information residing in different parts. So, a visual representation of a thing resides somewhere different from the word representation of that thing, which resides somewhere different from the concept of that thing. Different parts of the brain talk to each other constantly, which is how we can see a visual stimulus such as the sun (which resides in one area), recall the word “sun” (which resides elsewhere), and abstractly conceptualize the sun as warm and life-giving (residing elsewhere still).

Now a little about the different types of amnesia.

Just as there are different forms of memory and different ways in which memories are stored and retrieved, there are different forms of memory deficits. (I’m talking only about amnesia here, not age-related memory loss, Alzheimer’s, etc.)

Amnesia can occur because of damage to any of the brain structures that are important for memory. Damage to a specific area may cause someone to be unable to see a guitar and know the word “guitar,” but they may be able to recall that it belongs to the category of “musical instrument”, or they may retain their ability to play it.

The three main classes of amnesia are anterograde, retrograde, and psychogenic.

Anterograde amnesia is caused by damage to the hippocampus and parts of the temporal lobe. Anterograde amnesia does not cause the loss of long-term memories, but the inability to store any new memories. Retrograde amnesia is the loss of old memories. Retrograde amnesia can cause the sufferer to forget months, years, or decades of his or her life. The final class is the rarest, yet the one most seen in movies and TV shows: psychogenic amnesia, also known as fugue state, which involves temporary loss of identity. Anterograde and retrograde amnesia usually result from brain injury or disease, but psychogenic amnesia is a psychological condition caused by psychological or emotional trauma.

Anterograde amnesia results from brain injury and impairs a person’s ability to learn new information. Long-term memories of experiences or events that took place before the injury are not generally affected, but memories of events that occur after the injury are not retained; there is an inability to create memories of new facts and events. This is often referred to as declarative memory—memories of what happened to you yesterday, the name of someone you met, etc. In cases of anterograde amnesia, short-term memory is usually okay; a person can carry on a conversation, for example, but it will fade from memory in time or if he or she is distracted.

Here is something fascinating about anterograde amnesia: A sufferer can be taught a new skill, such as how to perform a specific task. The next day, the person will claim to have no memory of this task, but can often still execute it well!

Retrograde amnesia results from brain injury or trauma and impairs a person’s ability to remember events or experiences from before the injury (ranging from a few minutes to several years). Memories lost in this form of amnesia are generally never recovered, although they can come back over time, in flashes and spurts, often when a person experiences things that are associated with a specific lost memory. For example, walking down the street one grew up on, they might be able to remember their old house number.

The fugue state (psychogenic amnesia) is the rarest form of amnesia. It seldom happens that a person forgets their entire life and identity—but it does happen. Unlike how it is depicted in the movies, this is often not brought on by a conk on the head, nor is it “repaired” by another conk on the head. Deep psychological and/or emotional trauma will cause someone to enter a fugue state. While it is generally temporary, there are case studies of people never regaining their identity as it existed prior to the trauma.

The reason I just did the synopsiest of all synopses about memory and amnesia is because it is interesting to me and I hope interesting to others. But also because I am not a doctor, psychologist, neuroscientist, or even a person producing a radio story about whether or not amnesia exists, and yet I have been able to find stacks and stacks of information about it. Professionally and ethically, I think Scott Carrier dropped the ball and I hope that in the future people will actually research a topic before writing or talking about it.

But also, like Rachel Howard, I have been personally affected by amnesia, and so I don’t see it the same way most people do. It shouldn’t be a contrivance of film and television. Even a movie I love, Wall-E, had the contrived (and offensive, to me) amnesic moment at the end, with his memory being miraculously restored by a kiss. This kind of thing is something you probably never think about, just as you probably never thought about how a murder mystery dinner is just as distasteful as a rape mystery dinner would be, even though it is ubiquitous.

As I said, it’s impossible to be aware of all of the things in the world that should be treated with sensitivity, gravity, solemnity. I hope, however, that I have contributed in some small way to people realizing that amnesia, like murder, is not only real but devastating to anyone who has experienced it. Given this, perhaps some day we can stop treating it as pop-culture fodder.


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmm…very interesting. You’re right, I never thought of how a murder mystery dinner is in fact very offensive given how it is treated as entertainment and ‘fun’. Having said that, I feel like I need to ‘defend’ television and movies however when it comes to portraying murder. Yes, it would be understandably difficult and traumatizing for someone such as Rachel Howard to watch crime shows; however, to those viewers who have not been personally affected by such tragedy, the storytelling aspect of those shows can be incredibly moving. The same with medical shows portraying characters facing life threatening illnesses, etc. We can, though momentarily, learn or ‘feel’ something that might open our eyes a bit, even if for just a short time, even if for a few measly minutes. It’s still something.

    Once again, I’m thinking out loud here. You’ve given me food for thought :0)

    – Fin

  2. I’m so glad you posted this! I just listened to that episode of TAL today. And it made me really angry!! I totally thought of you first thing. But secondly, there was a point where he was like “Do you actually know anyone how’s had amnesia?” and I thought to myself – uh yeah, I know two people who have it!

    Anyway, thanks for a really interesting and scientific/medical discussion of amnesia.

  3. I know someone who has it, but I forgot who it is…

  4. Thank you for this post. I found your blog after months of looking for amnesia sufferers on line. I wanted to find other people with similar conditions like me. I was in a comatose condition for approximately 13 days early this year brought on by complications from the birth of our second child. When I was finally revived they determined I suffered from both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. I think the worst part of it for me was not remembering how I met my husband, our wedding and our subsequent life together. Worse than that, I don’t remember the birth of our boys.
    I have had people ask me details of my condition and as I am telling them my story I can sometimes see they don’t quite believe me. I’ve had to learn to live with the scepticism and the frustration of everyone, especially my family, around me. I will tell you that nobody in their right mind would even want to pretend to have this condition. It’s debilitating and isolating.
    People like Scott Carrier have no idea what it’s like to spend moment by moment trying to hold on to scraps of memory so you can do simple tasks like preparing your baby’s milk.
    I’ve seen the movies and the shows and they can’t compare to the real’s rarely ever funny and a lot of times there’s never a happy ending. It’s the never ending note taking and organizing…in short, just a daily exercise in survival.

  5. On August 12, 2010 at 7:23 am Tina said:

    Thank you for this post. I found your blog after months of looking for amnesia sufferers on line. I wanted to find other people with similar conditions like me….

    Hi Tina,

    Your story is devastating, but sadly I have read many like it (authors such as Oliver Sacks, et al). My experience with amnesia is personal as well, but in my story I am the character of your husband — it was the person I was in love with who forgot me. If you’d like to respond to this with your e-mail address, I promise not to make it public; I’d just like to get in touch so that maybe we can talk about this some more.

  6. I realize how difficult it must be to love someone who can’t remember you. In my case, it’s a struggle to maintain some sense of normalcy but I do it because of my husband and our boys. Thank you for sharing your story with me and I hope to be able to share some of my daily struggles with you…I hope that in some way it might help you deal with yours as well.

  7. In reference to the “amnesia episode” of This American Life, Scott Carrier does speak to someone at the nuerroscience center at the Univ of Illinois. He states that it does occur, but it’s very rare. In these cases, long-term memory loss is never recovered. He also mentions cases in which there is no physical trauma present and it could be a case of a “person not wanting to remember.” It’s difficult for a doctor to determine whether the patient is faking it.

    After speaking to someone at the U of I, he speaks to a man that claims to have experienced amnesia.

    I don’t think Scott Carrier meant to imply that amnesia does not EVER occur.

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