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Amnesia overview

Engraving of a man with bandaged head.1

Hollywood has been enamoured with versions of the amnesia plot for nearly a century, from the 1915 film, Garden of Lies to today’s Jason Bourne trilogy with actor Matt Damon, and Before I Go to Sleep, with Nicole Kidman.

As someone who has had severe amnesia, I can report that for those who experience it in life, it is no Hollywood glamour ride.

So what is amnesia? Amnesia is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical or psychological trauma. Psychologist Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied a patient, known as K. C. for years. K. C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes:

"The outstanding fact about K.C.’s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present." - Turving, 2002 2          

Retrograde amnesia

In retrograde amnesia, the lack of memory relates to events that occurred before the traumatic event that triggered it. People with this condition might still recall how to do things, as their procedural memory is not necessarily impaired. With retrograde amnesia, one can make new memories. For a person with retrograde amnesia, when their memories return, the earliest ones tend to appear first. In other words, older memories, such as memories from childhood, are usually affected more slowly and are likely to come back prior to more recent memories. Diseases such as dementia cause gradual retrograde amnesia.

Anterograde amnesia

If you have anterograde amnesia, you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to the injury that caused it. The hippocampus is usually affected, which suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories. 3
Anterograde amnesia is a rare condition in life, and one compellingly represented in the critically acclaimed and stunning film Memento (2000). The film was based on the 2001 short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan.

Guy Pierce playing Leonard Shelby with anterograde amnesia in Memento
A scene from Memento.

In the film, actor Guy Pierce’s character, Leonard, is presented as someone who cannot make new memories and cannot remember who murdered his wife.

People with anterograde amnesic syndromes may present with widely varying degrees of forgetfulness. Some with severe cases have a combined form of anterograde and retrograde amnesia, sometimes called global amnesia.

Transient Global Amnesia (TGA)

A poorly understood condition, if you develop Transient Global Amnesia (TGA) you will experience confusion or agitation that comes and goes repeatedly over the course of several hours. (Author Robert Ludlam reportedly experienced something like this as his inspiration for Jason Bourne). You may experience memory loss in the hours before the attack, and you will probably have no lasting memory of the experience. Scientists think that TGA occurs as the result of seizure-like activity or a brief blockage of the blood vessels supplying your brain. It occurs more frequently in middle-aged and older adults.

Fugue State

Fugue State is said to be caused by severe psychological trauma. In this case, memories can surface randomly. Some say Jason Bourne has this condition, others say he has amnesia. I form t


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