Thanks for the Memories

By Kathy A. Svitil|Thursday, April 28, 2005

In the movies, a conk on the noggin can erase a person’s memory and personality, turning brutal assassins into average folk and heiresses into humble housewives. Such personality-altering amnesia is far from reality, reports Sallie Baxendale, a neuropsychologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, in a first-ever study of amnesia in films.

Profound amnesia (usually caused by neurosurgery, brain infection, or stroke) is quite rare in the general population, but Baxendale found amnesic characters in 60 movies, from the 1915 silent reel Garden of Lies to 2004’s 50 First Dates and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In nearly all, the portrayals were stunningly inaccurate. In one common device, movie patients lose their memory after a blow to the head, then regain it with a second injury. “The idea that lost memory could come back after another bang is absolutely ridiculous,” Baxendale says. “You wouldn’t expect that with any other sort of injury. You couldn’t hurt your leg and then hurt it again to make it better.”

The loss of personality is equally implausible. Neurological patients very rarely lose their identity, Baxendale says. “You know your name and how old you are. You know who you are. That stays.” Instead, amnesia robs victims of the ability to retain new information. “You don’t remember messages, you don’t remember people’s names or the newspaper story you just read,” she says. “It becomes really hard to function every day.”

Surprisingly, the symptoms mirror those suffered by the character Dory in the Disney/Pixar animated film Finding Nemo, one of just three films Baxendale says correctly depicts the disorder. (The others are Memento and the Spanish film Sé Quién Eres.) “There is a bit at the end when the older fish, Marlin, goes off and leaves Dory by herself. She just swims around in circles because she doesn’t know where she is. If you take true amnesics out and then leave them in a shopping center, their confusion is immense,” Baxendale says. “They have no idea where they are, why they are there. Dory’s situation was quite real.”

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