Thanks for the memories: cinematic portrayal of amnesia is profoundly misleading

December 16, 2004

The way the movies represent amnesia is profoundly misleading, and gives the general public a false view of what to expect if they are diagnosed with the condition, says a paper in this week's BMJ.

Analyzing a host of movies from the silent era up to the present day, the paper traces a number of regular misconceptions about the condition.

Most amnesics in films are able to function as if on a 'clean slate', suffering few problems with everyday tasks, while managing to hold down new jobs and function socially. In reality amnesic patients experience significant difficulties in taking in new information, making many everyday tasks extremely difficult.

Movies often portray amnesics as undergoing complete personality changes, with a "startling number of originally 'bad' characters becoming 'good' after the onset of amnesia." In reality however personality and identity are often unaffected.

One of the most "neurologically bizarre features" of amnesia in films is the myth of a second serious head injury reversing the effects of a previous blow, says the paper's author Dr Sallie Baxendale. Movies also promote the idea that hypnosis or contact with a familiar object are ways out of the condition, but this is rarely the case.

Conversely, one of the more accurate portrayals of amnesia in films was the animated character Dory in last year's Finding Nemo (2003) says Dr Baxendale. The character finds it difficult to retain new information, remember names or know where she is going or why. The film also shows the frustration of those around her, and although she is a comic character, it reflects her vulnerability when she finds herself alone, lost and profoundly confused.

The widespread influence of cinema in shaping public perceptions must not be underestimated by the medical profession, says Dr Baxendale. Doctors should be aware of the myths about amnesia promoted in the movies when talking to patients and their relatives, she concludes.


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