Marlin, an overprotective father, watches as his son Nemo is taken by a scuba diver. On his quest to find his son, Marlin encounters an extraordinary fish named Dory who volunteers to help him find Nemo. Dory’s anterograde amnesia (inability to form new memories) leads this dynamic duo into some unexpected and sometimes dangerous situations including surfing sea-turtles, mazes of jelly fish, and recovering fish addicted sharks. Throughout, Marlins impatience with Dory’s deficits leads to conflicts. However, Dory is able to remember the most vital piece of information that will help reunite Marlin with his son.
Just Keep Swimming: Aquatic Advice For Coping with Amnesia
“I just, I remember things better with you.” Such a simple statement and yet such a poignant idea. While Finding Nemo may appear to be...
Dory, a Regal Blue Tang fish, is introduced to the movie plot when she literally bumps into Marlin, a clown fish who is frantically chasing after a boat of scuba divers who have just captured his son, Nemo. Dory recalls seeing the boat and, after a short exchange, agrees to show Marlin the way it went. However, after swimming a few minutes, Dory completely forgets who Marlin is and why he has been following her and it quickly becomes apparent that Dory suffers from anterograde amnesia, or a problem in learning new information. Despite this dilemma, Marlin and Dory team up and set out on a journey to find Nemo.
It is throughout this journey that Dory’s memory impairment reveals itself in various instances. She has trouble learning names (particularly Nemo’s), learning and retaining new information, and even remembering the fact that she was engaged in conversation just minutes before. Moreover, Dory has difficulty remembering specific navigational directions, let alone knowing what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Repetition—for example, that of the address for their Australian destination—is helpful when she is able to keep her attention on the task, but as soon as her concentration is broken, the rehearsed information is lost. These problems in encoding new information are hallmarks of anterograde amnesia. Dory describes her condition as “short-term memory loss” which is the way most people refer to the problem of encoding new information that is the hallmark of anterograde amnesia. Although little is known about the origin of Dory’s amnesia, she says it runs her family, perhaps making this a nod to the notion of “goldfish memory”. In humans, anterograde amnesia is most associated with anterior temporal damage, particularly to a structure called the hippocampus (Zillmer, Spiers, & Culbertson, 2008); In younger people anterograde amnesia is usually caused by brain trauma due to head injury.
Despite her impairment and the setbacks it creates, Dory remains optimistic, positive, and persistent, not allowing her amnesia to hinder her ability to successfully reach her goals. When faced with difficult moments and challenges, she reminds herself (and at times, Marlin) to “just keep swimming,” a mantra that has become one of the best-known catchphrases of the film. In fact, Dory’s positive attitude and carefree personality make her an essential part of an aquatic pairing—Nemo would have never been found had it not been for Dory’s involvement in Marlin’s life and along the journey. There is no doubt that Dory’s amnesia is an obstacle; but her optimism allows her to overcome this obstacle and be able to tackle various predicaments along the adventure she and Marlin embark on.
Marlin, on the other hand, has a more difficult time remaining positive. Near the end of the journey, he loses hope, believing that Nemo is dead and begins to turn around and go home. Dory pleads with him to stay, confessing that she remembers things better when she’s with Marlin and she feels a sense of home with him around. At this moment, the audience discovers that both the positive and emotionally secure environment and relationship that she has built with Marlin seem to have greatly helped her ability to remember
Beneath the comical and kid-friendly surface, Finding Nemo touches on the potential beneficial effects that familiarity, social support, and a positive environment can have on stimulating and fostering memory retention of those who suffer from anterograde amnesia. To that end, one technique utilized is that of reality orientation. First proposed by Taulbee and Folsom (1966), reality orientation is intended to reorient a person to his or her current reality and ultimately improve the amnesic patient’s quality of life. This is done by easing amnesiacs back into their environment by surrounding them with familiar objects, smells, sounds, photographs, and music (De Guise, Leblanc, Feyz, Thomas, & Gosselin, 2005). Typically, reality orientation is used with dementia and Alzheimer's disease patients and has been shown to be effective in improving cognition in this population (Zanetti, et al., 2002). However, this method has also been used successfully with post-traumatic amnesia in patients with traumatic brain injuries (De Guise et al., 2005), as well as a single-case patient with acquired neurological impairment (Kaschel, Zaiser-Kaschel, Shiel, & Mayer, 1995). In Dory, the fact that she identifies her surroundings (particularly those involving Marlin) as “home,” believing that she is able to remember more—and better—in these settings, suggests that a fictional version of reality orientation could be a viable approach in mitigating her memory loss.
Another aspect of Finding Nemo that resonates with caretaking for an amnesiac is that of social support and the relationship between Dory and Marlin is an example of this. Though she may be oblivious (for comical effect) to the frustrations that Marlin expresses, Dory truly finds her place at home with Marlin and develops a familial, interdependent, and supportive relationship with him. Unlike her severe amnesia in other situations, Dory doesn’t seem to have problems remembering Marlin and it is this relationship that she believes to be the source of her being able to “remember better.” Interestingly, studies have demonstrated the critical role of family functioning and caregiver characteristics, including social support, in contributing to the wellbeing of individuals with TBI (Vangel, Rapport, & Hanks, 2011). Maybe Dory is more insightful about this than she is given credit for.
Unrelated to the familiarity and support she finds with Marlin, the most prominent characteristic about Dory is her positivity that she carries herself with and which emanates from her into the environment she is in. Perhaps this characteristic in and of itself is what aids in her coping with anterograde amnesia. Findings from various studies suggest that dispositional optimism and positive expectations predict better health and wellbeing and recovery outcomes (Lench, 2010; Scheier & Carver, 1987). Dory frequently expresses her optimistic outlook on life in her “just keep swimming” motto. Not only does it help see both Marlin and herself through to the end of their journey, but it seems to have helped her in past situations as well. Is it possible that this is her coping tool not only when faced with adventurous challenges but also the everyday challenges faced as an amnesiac?
In Finding Nemo, anterograde amnesia is a problem that is met with a positive mindset and the help of a supportive system of family and friends. The message to “just keep swimming” through life’s challenges may, not surprisingly, have a scientific basis.
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