We can learn a lot from the movies. Of course, sometimes what we learn has no basis in reality. For example, lawyers should not take their cross-examination techniques from Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, and doctors shouldn’t be too quick to use a defibrillator as demonstrated in… well… pretty much every medical drama ever made.
Certain real-life afflictions make excellent plot points in movies and television, and one of the biggest cliches that’s still used today is amnesia. Whether it’s Jason Bourne trying to get a hold of his past or a poor widower chasing down a man named John G., amnesia makes for a compelling story where we get to learn alongside a person who already knows the thing that they don’t know.
But is movie amnesia realistic, or is it total crap?
The Answer: It’s a deliciously blended crap-and-truth milkshake
Like any science you see in the movies, there’s certainly a basis in fact. While most people think of amnesia being a grand, sweeping disorder, it can be much simpler. Not all amnesia cases result in people forgetting vast chunks of their memories. They might only forget things for as little as a few seconds to a few minutes.
There are many types of amnesia, but the most commonly addressed types in movies are retrograde amnesia, which is the inability to recall things that happened in the past before a certain event, and anterograde amnesia, which is the inability to make new memories. Most amnesia results from some sort of trauma to the body, either by an accident or drugs. This is, at least, one thing that Hollywood tends to get right.
Retrograde amnesia is a common tool used in television and soap operas because it makes for an interesting mystery to solve. Anterograde amnesia is a little more complex but offers a more compelling mystery. The inability to form new memories results from the brain not moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory. This type of amnesia has been featured prominently in films like Memento and 50 First Dates.
However, movies use many other forms of amnesia without really realizing it. In The Hangover, the Wolf Pack wakes up from a drug-and-alcohol binge with no memory of the night before. This is a classic example of drug-induced amnesia. Much differently, in the film The Notebook, Gena Rowlands’ character suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which brings on a form of amnesia by not allowing the subject to recall memories of his or her past. In the film The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) suffers from a dissociative fugue state, which is a loss of memory about one’s identity.
Other forms of amnesia can result from psychological trauma, pervasive alcohol abuse, developmental disorders during childhood, and malnutrition.
So what do movies get right?
Not surprisingly, Christopher Nolan got a lot right about the character of Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento. Even though Leonard insists he doesn’t have amnesia (though it appears he’s explaining he doesn’t have the amnesia people are used to seeing on television), he does. It is a relatively accurate portrayal of anterograde amnesia, with his memories only lasting a few minutes at a time. In fact, Leonard’s case is very similar to a man known as Patient HM, who suffered from anterograde amnesia but was still able to form procedural memories, or learn the ability to do perform actions and patterns.
Similarly, in 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore’s character suffers from anterograde amnesia and can’t make new memories. The presentation of the disease in the movie is relatively accurate. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that the film shows the unfortunate need to institutionalize some people who suffer permanently from the condition. Even the film’s somewhat happy ending in which Barrymore’s character manages to fall in love and get married could conceivably happen, even if it is a bit cheesy.
The romance The Vow is a more traditional amnesia tale, and it is actually based on a true story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. Krickitt Carpenter lost 18 months of memories after a traumatic car crash, and her then-forgotten husband worked to help her build a new life even though those memories never returned.
So, yes, these things do happen, and Hollywood gets things right sometimes. But…
What do they get wrong?
The darkness of the Memento story revolves around Leonard obsessing about the attack on him and his wife. However, if this was the traumatic moment that caused his condition, his memories would not be that vivid surrounding it.
In 50 First Dates, while the condition is presented relatively accurately, it is given the nonsensical name of “Goldfield’s Syndrome,” which does not exist. Also, the family of Barrymore’s character spend their lives pretending her final day before the accident that caused her amnesia is still happening. Most amnesia victims do not have this strong or dedicated of a support system.
For both Memento and 50 First Dates, a traumatic injury causes the characters’ anterograde amnesia. However, this condition most often results from neurological problems like stroke, encephalitis or epilepsy. Those situations would provide for a different kind of drama altogether.
In regards to The Vow, while the set-up of Rachel McAdams’ character’s amnesia is accurate to the true story, her character ends up changing. A similar thing happens in the film Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford’s character essentially becomes a different person after an accident. However, a person’s sense of identity is one of the deepest memories they have, and amnesia rarely affects that. In other words, you can have amnesia that wipes out memories before or after an incident, but you will still be the same person you were before, for better or for worse.
Finally, the end to the amnesiac condition is the biggest point where movies get it wrong. Going all the way back to the Laurel & Hardy short films of yesteryear, amnesia and other psychological disorders appeared all the time, usually after a sharp, hilarious blow to the head. The easiest way to fix things in the comedy world was another sharp blow to the head.
Please, please, please, don’t start trying to cure mental illness by striking people on the head with a sledgehammer, Three Stooges style. You’ll likely kill someone and be put in a medical facility.
Many types of amnesia go away on their own, actually. Those cases in which it persists can be treated with occupational therapy and cognitive therapy, along with technology assistance and family support.
Again, that doesn’t exactly make a great story, so this rather mundane treatment is often swept under Hollywood’s rug.
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