Amnesiacs Don’t Forget As Much As Most People Think

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” —Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia

In A Nutshell

It’s a plot point in almost every movie and television show that features a story about amnesia. The memory loss includes forgetting your name, who you are, and all of your close family members . . . right? Actually, most types of amnesia leave all this knowledge intact and are characterized by an inability to form new memories or recall old but recent ones.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all seen the movies and television shows where a character suffers from amnesia for one reason or another. Suddenly, they can’t remember what their name is, what they do, who they are, where they live, or who their family members are. While it’s a brilliant (if not overused) plot device, amnesia usually doesn’t work that way.

There are two main types of amnesia. Anterograde amnesia means that the person can no longer form new memories. Anything that happens after the event, accident, or illness that triggered the amnesia is forgotten right after it happens.

Retrograde amnesia is the type of amnesia we’re probably more familiar with. This is the type that impacts past memories, leaving the brain able to form new ones but unable to recall old ones. Where most fiction gets it wrong, though, is in what memories this impacts.

Most people who suffer from retrograde amnesia have their short-term memory impacted. Much more likely to survive are long-term memories that have been carried with you for years and are well ingrained into not just your brain, but your identity and your personality. That includes your name and who you are. Many people suffering from amnesia will remember details from their childhood, but not remember what they did for dinner the night before.

In some cases, there are some other, less commonly known symptoms of amnesia. A person might remember events, but have them placed at the wrong time. They might think that a birthday party from their childhood happened yesterday, or remember conversations from years ago as happening last week. Confusion and disorientation—often coupled with these misplaced memories—is common.

A person might also remember things that never happened to them as the brain makes up its own memories to replace the ones that are missing.

Another thing that’s often misrepresented is the idea that a person can slowly recover their memories and be aware that it’s happening. Often, a person with amnesia isn’t aware of the missing memories, and when they do return, they have no recollection of having gone through an episode of amnesia.

It’s also important to note that the memory loss that’s associated with amnesia is completely different from the memory loss that’s associated with dementia. With dementia, there are a myriad of symptoms that just aren’t found with amnesia, which impacts only the memory.

The main causes of amnesia are another area where fiction largely gets it wrong. We always seem to see characters suffering from memory loss after an accident or head injury. In fact, this type of memory loss is often mild and temporary, rarely resulting in permanent damage.

More common causes of amnesia are less dramatic to portray on television and in movies. A stroke is commonly associated with the development of amnesia, as well as other medical conditions that cause a loss of oxygen to the brain. Heart attacks, severe asthma or other respiratory disorders, and constant inhalation of other gases can cause permanent damage and amnesia. Brain tumors and inflammation of brain tissue can cause amnesia, and medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s can lead to the development of amnesia as one of the symptoms.

A very rare type of amnesia—and incidentally, another that’s a favorite of fiction and pop culture—is the type of amnesia brought on by a traumatic event or extreme stress. While it’s possible and that does happen, it’s much, much more rare than we’re often led to think.

Show Me The Proof

Mayo Clinic: Amnesia: definition
Better Health Channel: Amnesia

  • Rijul Ballal

    I was gonna make a funny comment,but I forgot what it was.

    • Check

      Beat me to the punchline.

  • Andy West

    Ummm, just give me a minute, it’s on the tip of my tongue. Come back to me.

  • Every summer we’d take the kids to the city park and there we met a young man with a pet bunny, who had anterograde amnesia. He would introduce himself to us every day we went there, sit with us, the kids would play with the bunny – and the next time everything would repeat itself almost exactly the same way. After a while, he would remember our kids names, or he would get close, getting the sounds right. Now he lives just a block away in an assisted living shelter. I often see him, but I am or remain a complete stranger to him. He doesn’t recognise the kids either. He still has the bunny, on a leash, the bunny’s name is Flu-or.

    • the big un

      Amnesia my arse he was grooming ya kids ya tatie

      • The bunny did seem to enjoy it a lot.

  • Luck Of Fire

    my brain is fucked.

    • rincewind

      My brain has been for years…..

  • Nathaniel A.

    “While it’s a brilliant (if not overused) plot device…” In my experience the two cancel each other out, the moment you get too much of a particular plot device or cliche, that is the moment it is not brilliant anymore, just tired and worn-out. Other than that thanks for differentiating amnesia.

  • UN

    christpher nolan should have read this before he made memento

  • Scott

    This guy I knew back when I was in junior high hit his head doing something at home and faked total amnesia. Everybody fucking bought it. It was really ridiculous. He acted like he didn’t remember anybody and even said his mom had to teach him to reread an analog clock. Everybody else was so supportive and understanding, but not I. I could tell from the first second I supposedly met him again that he was faking.

  • Amnesia can also be the result of certain drugs, whether taken as directed by one’a physician or for recreation. Most, if not all, of the major pain medications (especially the opiates) can cause amnesia to one degree or another.

  • Antek

    When I was 15 I had a motorbike accident and i hit my head pretty hard, I do not have any memory of the accident nor of the hour before or after it. My best friend that was with me at the time said that I was awake. Apparently I punched one of the ambulance guys when he touched me on an open wound. I apologized to the man when He came to visit me at the hospital a couple of days later.
    The first memory I have is from two hours aftet the crash when I was at the ER.

    Not sure if it can be classified as amnesia but it pretty close.