Neuroscience at the Movies

Amnesia

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
"A man's memory is all that stands between him and chaos."
--- A. L. Korsakoff.

Amnesia is not so much a disorder as it is a symptom of disease or injury to the brain. Amnesia is best defined as a failure to retrieve information or to place information in an appropriate context. The overall effects of amnesia depend on the type and severity of the event that caused the injury. Amnesia is rarely total for all past events; no one actually goes through the rest of his or her life as a "ghost" without an identity or any knowledge of self or family. Rather, memory loss usually temporary and involves only a portion of a person's life.

Head trauma may result in retrograde or anterograde amnesia. Retrograde amnesia involves loss of memory for events prior to the injury; anterograde amnesia is the inability to form new memories. Sometimes amnesia is such that the victim only forgets what happened to them just prior to the head trauma. Generally, the amnesia associated with concussions lasts only seconds to minutes, but in cases of severe trauma, the amnesia may involve weeks to months of the victim not remembering anything. The amnesia gradually gets resolved from more distant to more recent memories. Sometimes small bits and pieces will remain forgotten or foggy. With some chronic degenerative disorders such as Korsakoff's syndrome, patients are unable to form new memories and remain "mentally" at some point in time before their brain damage as if they are stuck in a "time warp."

Films containing an amnesic character often have clues for the character and audience about the character's identity and past. These may appear as flashbacks or dreams or be revealed as a knack for a particular activity that the character didn't know he or she possessed. Often, especially in the dream and flashback sequences, there is a feeling of unreality, as if the action must be happening to someone else, perhaps mirroring the character's confusion in determining what is true and real. Director Alfred Hitchcock takes this a step further in his film Spellbound by having the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, design the amnesic doctor's dream sequence. In another nod to surrealism in general and Dali in particular, the film Dead Again features Dali's painting, "Persistence of Memory" (the one with the melted clocks) only with a twist.

Questions to consider while viewing these films:

  • What event triggered the character's amnesia? Would you describe the precipitating event as physically or psychologically traumatic or due to disease processes?
  • Did the amnesic character exhibit anterograde or retrograde amnesia?
  • Did the character attempt to conceal his/her condition? If so, in what ways?
  • What methods did the amnesic character employ to supplement his or her lost memory?
  • How does the character get clues to his or her past and original identity - through dreams, flashbacks or what?
  • Did the character recover his or her memory by the end of the film?
  • If you lost your memory for past events, how would you go about piecing together your past? What items would you use or consult? How about for new memories - how would you remind yourself of people and things that you are unable to keep in your memory?
  • If you watch two or more of these films, compare and contrast how the amnesic characters met their unique challenges.

MOVIE AGE/RATING TYPE COMMENTS
Anastasia

1956

Elementary School

Rated: Not Rated

Drama

104 min.

Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar as the amnesic refugee, Anna Koren, that the entrepreneurial General Bounine (Yul Brynner) hopes to prove is the lost heir (or a reasonable facsimile) to the Romanov throne. But what started as a ruse may turn out to be the real thing, as Anna knows more about the royal family before their assassination than a stranger should. The Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes), Anastasia's grandmother, will decide. You could show the Disney remake (1997), but why? With such excellent story, acting, costumes and music, who needs talking bats, glowing crystals, and the vengeful ghost of Rasputin to sweep you along?
Clean Slate

1994

Middle School

Rated: PG-13

Comedy

106 min.

Following an explosion, private detective Maurice Pogue (Dana Carvey) has lost his memory. He can't remember anything before the accident or anything afterwards for more than a day at a time - in other words, whenever he wakes up, it's a brand new life. To remind himself of important information and whom he can trust, he makes notes to himself on a mini tape recorder and little slips of paper. To make matters worse, he's got to testify against the bad guys in court in a few days, but who can he trust?

Compare with Memento: type and reliability of note-keeping - how do they resolve conflicting information.

Spellbound

1945

Middle School

Not Rated

Suspense

150 min.

A handsome young doctor, "Dr. Edwards" (Gregory Peck), arrives to assume directorship of Green Manors psychiatric hospital, only to be revealed as a fraud using the assumed identity of a murdered man. Psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is convinced that he's not a murderer ("We'll look at some sane trees, normal grass and clouds without complexes"), and seeks to help him regain his memory with the aid of her former professor and Freudian analyst, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov - "Good night and happy dreams which we will analyze at breakfast."). The patient recounts a dream sequence (designed by Salvador Dali), which Drs. Peterson and Brulov decode to discover his true identity as well as the truth behind the disappearance of the real Dr. Edwards. Velvety shadows a la Hitchcock and Oscar winning musical score by Miklos Rozsa enhance every moment. Excellent in every way - acting, directing, suspense - this movie is sure to hold all its viewers spellbound.
Who Am I?

1998

High School

Rated: PG-13

Action

108 min.

"I may have amnesia but I'm not stupid" - even when he sets up a coconut IV (you read that right) on a snakebite victim and slides down the side of a skyscraper. If you can watch Jackie Chan without an adrenaline rush and a wide grin, you must be at room temperature. They should name a unit of energy after this guy! Chan plays a special operative who loses his memory following a fall through the African jungle from a helicopter that crashes with the rest of his team members. There's a double cross afoot in the CIA ("Trust no one") and half a billion dollars is on the line because someone wants to control a special little nugget (a piece of lint off Chan's suit?) with enough energy to short circuit a power station. Must not be radioactive, though, because nobody's wearing protective gear. But make whatever leap of faith is necessary to enjoy this action-packed adventure - you won't regret it.
Dead Again

1991

High School

Rated: R

Thriller

107 min.

A mute, amnesic young woman (Emma Thompson) of unknown origins resides in an abbey, until her shrieks and nightmares force her caretakers to seek outside help and accomodations for her. Private detective Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) is summoned; he places a newspaper ad for public help in identifying her and enlists the aid of former psychiatrist-turned-grocer played by Robin Williams. An antique furniture dealer sees the ad and offers his services as a hypnotist to help "Grace" discover her identity and source of trauma and in doing so, opens the unfinished tale of love, brutal murder and wrongful imprisonment/death in a previous life. Characters and events from the previous existence are present and interwoven with the present. Salvation lies in the simultaneous solution of both mysteries. Watch for a twist on Salvador Dali's painting, "Persistence of Memory" (the one with the "melted" clocks).
Memento

2000

High School

Rated: R

Thriller

113 min.

Following a brutal attack in which his wife was killed and he was injured, a severely amnesic man (Guy Pearce) resolves to track down his wife's killer. However, the attack has left him unable to form new memories, so he ritually takes polaroid pictures, writes notes and even tattooes himself with information pertinent to his investigation. The film tells the story in backwards fragments, starting at the end. Also, your assessment of the characters and their motives shifts with each new revelation. This film will generate PLENTY of discussion.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Impairment
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies

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