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Most People with Amnesia Forget All Details of Their Earlier Lives

“Where am I?” “Who am I?”

These are probably the two questions most frequently asked by people when they first awaken from a coma—at least in the movies. Most Hollywood depictions of amnesia—memory loss—have two commonalities. First, amnesics’ most glaring problem is almost always a loss of memories of their past. They usually have little or no difficulty learning new things. Second, if amnesics have been unconscious for a long time, say a few weeks or months, they typically lose all recollection of their earlier lives. Their minds are essentially a blank slate, with much or all of their past wiped clean. More often than not, they’ve forgotten what year it is, where they live, to whom they’re married, what they do for a living, perhaps even who they are.

Let’s examine a few choice examples from the cinematic world. In one of the earliest depictions of amnesia on the big screen, Garden of Lies (1915), a newly married bride forgets everything about herself, including who she is, following a car accident. In a lighter version, Santa Who? (2000), Santa Claus falls off his sleigh and loses his identity—and along with it, all of his previous memories. In the three films in the Jason Bourne series (The BourneIdentity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, spanning 2002 to 2007), the hero, portrayed by Matt Damon, loses all memories of his life and assumes a new identity as a governmental assassin. Indeed, variations on this theme are especially common in Hollywood films featuring hired murderers. As one writer observed, profound amnesia in Hollywood films “is something of an occupational hazard for professional assassins.”

These cinematic depictions of amnesia are largely mirrored in the views of most Americans. In one survey, for example, 51% of Americans said that people with head injuries have more trouble remembering events that happened before than after the injury. In another survey, 48% of Americans said that following a head injury, remembering things from one’s past is harder than learning new things. Large percentages of Americans also believe that following head injuries, people routinely forget who they are and can’t recognize anyone they know.

Yet the popular view of amnesia bears scant resemblance to its real-world counterpart. In fact, the primary problem among most people who experience a head injury or stroke isn’t retrograde amnesia —loss of memory of the past—but rather anterograde amnesia—loss of memory for new information. That is, people with amnesia typically have trouble forming new memories, although some have lost past memories too. The best known case of severe anterograde amnesia in the psychological literature is that of H.M., a lonely man (who died in 2008 at the age of 74) who underwent brain surgery in 1953 to halt his severe epilepsy. Following the surgery, which removed both of H.M.’s hippocampi (brain structures that are crucial to long-term memory), H.M. became virtually incapable of forming memories for new events, or what psychologists call “episodic memories.” H.M read the same magazines over and over again as though he’d never seen them before, routinely had no recollection of meeting people he’d been introduced to 5 minutes earlier, and experienced catastrophic grief each time his doctors informed him of his uncle’s death. Although H.M. experienced some retrograde amnesia as well, anterograde amnesia was his primary problem, as it is for most amnesics.

In one of the rare exceptions in which American films got scientific psychology largely right, the brilliant 2000 thriller Memento showcases a character, Leonard (portrayed by Guy Pearce), who experiences severe anterograde amnesia following a head injury. Unable to create episodic memories, Leonard is exploited mercilessly by others, culminating in his murder of an innocent man. Cleverly, the scenes in the film unfold in reverse order, reflecting Leonard’s sense of living almost completely in the present.

There’s still another way in which the popular media usually get amnesia wrong. So-called “generalized amnesia,” in which people forget their identity and all details of their previous lives, is exceedingly rare. In the unusual cases in which generalized amnesia occurs, it’s almost always believed to be associated with psychological causes, such as extreme stress, rather than head injury or other neurological causes. Nevertheless, some psychologists doubt that generalized amnesia due to psychological factors even exists. They may be right, because in these cases it’s difficult to rule out the possibility that the apparent amnesia is due to malingering--that is, faking of symptoms to achieve an external goal, such as financial gain or avoiding military service.

We’d be remiss not to mention two further misconceptions regarding amnesia. First, perhaps inspired by the Hollywood version, many people believe that, immediately after emerging from a prolonged coma, people can experience complete amnesia for their past yet otherwise be entirely normal. If we were to believe the typical Hollywood portrayal, such people can respond coherently to questions and talk in complete sentences, even if they believe the year is 1989—when they lost consciousness—rather than 2009. Indeed, in one survey a whopping 93% of respondents said that people with severe amnesia for virtually all of their past can be normal in every other way. Sadly, research reveals this as little more than wishful thinking. People who emerge from comas with significant amnesia are almost always left with lasting and serious cognitive deficits, including problems in perception and learning.

A second and more peculiar misconception is that following a head injury, one of the best ways to rid oneself of amnesia is to experience another head injury. This creative method of memory recovery is a plot device in many films. In the 1987 film Overboard, starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Hawn’s character loses her memory after bumping her head following a fall from a yacht, and regains her memory later in the film following a second bump on the head. This thinking may reflect a misapplication of what cognitive psychologists call the “representativeness heuristic”: If a bump on the head can cause us to lose our memories, a second bump on the head can cause us to regain them. After all, if two heads are better than one, two head injuries might be, too. Remarkably, one survey showed that between 38%and 46% of people hold this misconception. Like a number of other popular misconceptions about psychology, this one isn’t merely wrong, but backwards. By damaging brain circuitry, earlier head injuries typically leave patients more vulnerable to the adverse effects of later head injuries.

So the next time you see a film featuring a character who’s lost all memories and all sense of who she is following a head injury, be sure not to “forget” a key point: The true amnesia is Hollywood’s profound loss of memory for scientific evidence.

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From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. Copyright © 2010 by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.  This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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