Amnesia in Movies?
Or, "Who am I? Who are YOU? How did I get here?"
Ever notice how Hollywood portrays amnesia victims? Total memory loss about everything in one's life, yet no physical or other psychological damage or problems? Can't happen according to this New York Times article from November 02, 2003.
November 2, 2003
An Accurate Movie About Amnesia? Forget About It.
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
AMONG the silliest yet most persistent of Hollywood verities are these: the dysfunctional boy gets the perfect girl, the good little guy triumphs over the bad big guy and anyone who gets knocked on the head awakens asking, "Who am I?"
Amnesia does exist. But total amnesia — as films usually present it — is rare. Like memory itself, amnesia is often spotty and poorly understood.
And yet amnesia's narrative lure persists. In "The Majestic" the victim can't remember anything. "Vanilla Sky" offers the more realistic can't-remember-the-car-crash syndrome and "Nurse Betty" the can-only-remember-a-TV-show variant. When "Paycheck," "Gothika" and later "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" open, there could be still more twists in the amnesia scenario — which might make skeptical audiences wish they could summon a little memory loss. The scientific credibility of all too many amnesia pictures can make even a fantasy like "Vanilla Sky" look like a documentary.
"Most of what I see in the movies on amnesia is preposterous," said David A. Hovda, director of the U.C.L.A. Brain Injury Research Center. "The odds of a really widespread memory loss from injury are minuscule. From an injury that leaves the person otherwise all right, that's pretty much unheard of."
And that favorite Hollywood corollary, the sudden return of memory lost to injury? Just as unlikely, experts say.
Mr. Hovda said film writers and directors often consulted him on depicting brain injuries. They just don't always follow his advice.
"Physical damage to the brain, even a concussion, usually does result in some memory impairment," said Yehuda Ben-Yishay, director of the Brain Injury Day Treatment Program at New York University Hospitals Center. "A person hurt in a car accident often cannot remember anything that happened a few minutes, hours or even days before the accident."
This phenomenon stems from the mysterious process of turning short-term memory into long-term. Injury that damages long-term memory is much rarer and is almost always accompanied by other, obvious harm, like impaired intelligence or physical control.
"The typical movie thing where the guy is just fine except that he can't remember who he is, doesn't recognize his wife — that's a fiction, and when I see these movies, I am laughing at the naïveté and stupidity of it," Mr. Ben-Yishay said. "I have never seen a patient who does not remember his name and at least some significant part of his history."
There have been a very few documented cases of broad amnesia in people who were otherwise more or less functional, the most famous probably being a patient known to medical literature as "H. M." In the 1950's doctors sought to cure his seizures by removing the temporal lobes of his brain. H. M. kept much of his pre-surgical memory but was unable to retain new memories; he would read the same magazine, or meet the same person, over and over, with no recall of the previous times.
But Hollywood prefers flashier memory-loss mechanisms — a brick to the head, say, or being shot or half-drowned — that lack the precision of surgery. The injury is messier, and so, in the real world, would be the neurological aftereffects.
When long-term memory is wiped out, the cause is far more likely to be a psychological trauma than a physical one. The mind can rebel against horrors, especially childhood horrors, so trauma survivors sometimes lose the power of speech, lose memory of the event or even a broad swath of memory to spare them from reliving what they have suffered.
Disease, too, can rob memory, as with Alzheimer's or certain brain tumors. But the loss is not sudden or uniform, and so it lacks cinematic flair. No one in Hollywood has yet made a big-budget action thriller about an Alzheimer's patient.
But science has never been Hollywood's strong suit, and amnesia is just too seductive for Hollywood to give up. It lets storytellers subject their characters to extremes of deception, uncertainty and loss.
"It's frightening, but it can be appealing too," Mr. Hovda said. "It's the ability to start over and remake yourself. It's the ultimate second chance."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company