What is the great amnesia hoax?
A conk on the head causes loss of identity.
A second conk - either physical or emotional can restore identity and memory.
It's been around for a long time. One of the earliest silent movies, The Unchanging Sea (D. W. Griffith, 1910) used this device when the main character loses his identity after a fishing accident. When he washes ashore, he has no idea who he is. He remains as a lost soul for years until he again sees his old familiar surroundings. The emotional conk restores his memory and identity.
Why do writers continue to use this trope?
•One reason is that losing one’s identity is a convenient way to send a protagonist on a quest to discover oneself.
•Losing personal past is also a great way to place someone in jeopardy. If there are bad guys in pursuit, the character has to figure out the past along with the audience.
•Finally, the fictional strategy of providing a physical or emotional jog to memory can wrap things up nicely. The audience and the character now know what really happened.
•There are other variations too, but the majority of movies listed in the Amnesia movies section of NeuropsyFi have some version of this fictional identity loss as a theme.
However, this double-conk theory of memory is not based on brain science. Hitting someone in the head a second time is not a good cure for brain injury. An emotional jog won't suddenly restore lost memory from a head injury or other neurological problem. These are examples of how not to write a character with neurological amnesia.
If you'd like to create a character with anterograde amnesia, and by that I mean problems in encoding and consolidating new information into long term memory that primarily results from damage to the hippocampus, I’ve compiled some resources for you here. There are links to videos on memory and forgetting and how memory works in the brain. These are at the level of a college Intro Psychology Course.
Click on Amnesia Cases of a Neurological Origin to get a look into the actual lives of people (such as Clive Wearing) struggling with neurological amnesia. There's no substitute for seeing what the life of a person with anterograde amnesia is really like in order to create the most believable and realistic character.
In my opinion, the movie that shows the most realistic portrayal of a leading character with anterograde amnesia is Memento (Leonard Shelby). The real life clips about the case of Clive Wearing show striking similarities between this actual case and the movie Memento.
In fact, Jonathon Nolan is reputed to have gotten the idea for his short story Memento Mori from his Intro Psychology class at Georgetown. My bet is that he watched the Clive Wearing video that I, and most psychology teachers around the country, show our students. Jonathon then pitched the story to his brother Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed Memento.
The style of Memento takes the audience into the head of a person with severe anterograde amnesia. The technique of having both a forward and backward plot line gives the audience only immediate and small pieces of information at a time, much like the world of someone who relies primarily on their short-term memory (7+/- 2 bits, about 20 seconds, or a few sentences).
Despite the scene in the movie where Leonard voices the common misperception that he doesn’t have amnesia because he knows who he is, this is one of the best movies depicting the POV of someone with severe anterograde amnesia. For more commentary see the NeuroPsyFi review of Memento.
I'm curious about the reasons writers may want to use characters with amnesia or other memory problems.
She’s the creator of Neuropsyfi and the Writer’s Brain Lab Blog.
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