Not Like the Movies: Know the Causes and Treatment Plans for Amnesia
Fri, December 3, 2021

Not Like the Movies: Know the Causes and Treatment Plans for Amnesia


Amnesia is defined as memory loss that does not involve forgetting your identity, said Mayo Clinic, an American non-profit academic medical center. Identity loss is a common plot device in movies and TV, but it does not generally describe cases of real-life amnesia. On the contrary, those with amnesia—also known as amnestic syndrome—usually know who they are though they have difficulty learning new information and forming new memories.

What Are People’s Beliefs Surrounding Human Memory? (2011)

In a study published in biomedical and life sciences journal PMC, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris hired SurveyUSA to poll a nationally representative sample of the US population for one week in June 2009. Each of the 1,838 respondents was designated to a weight based on the demographics for sex, region, age, and race of the US population, producing a sample size of 1,500 people. In the study, 47.8% of respondents in the Public group strongly agreed that people suffering from amnesia typically cannot recall their own name or identity.

In the Experts and Psychonomics groups, none answered strongly agreed. In fact, 87.5% of those in the Experts group and 57.5% of those in the Psychonomics category strongly disagreed with the statement. 23.9% of the Public group strongly agreed that human memory works like a video camera, while those in the Experts (93.8%) and Psychonomics (97.3%) groups strongly disagreed with the statement.

According to the Public group, 15% strongly agreed that hypnosis is useful in helping witnesses recall details of crimes accurately. Meanwhile, those from the Experts (68.8%) and Psychonomics (69.9%) groups said they strongly disagreed with the statement. 16.5% of the Public strongly agreed that the memory of an event they experienced will not change. On the other hand, 93.8% of Experts and 91.8% of Psychonomics answered strongly disagree.

The authors then weighted each respondent in the Public sample to make up for over- or under-sampling of their demographic group. However, only those who had completed all the substantive questions and the demographic questions were included in the analyses in order for Simons and Chabris to weigh the participants’ answers appropriately.

Out of the 1,490 respondents who answered the education item, 87.4% of respondents without college experiences agreed that people suffering from amnesia typically cannot recall their own name or identity (versus 87.4% of those with some college experience, 87.8% of college graduates, and 78.8% of those in graduate school).

78.2% of those without college education agreed that human memory works like a video camera (versus 69.4%, 55.6%, and 46.7%). More respondents without college education (64.9%) agreed that memory does not change once a person has experienced an event and formed a memory of it than those with some college education (69.4%), college graduates (55.6%), and those in graduate school (46.7%).

Consistent with other findings, 68.4% of those without college education agreed that hypnosis is useful in helping witnesses accurately recall details of crimes. Meanwhile, the figures were at 59.9% for respondents with some college education, 59.9% for college graduates, and 50.2% for respondents in graduate school. The authors concluded that each of the beliefs stated in the survey is contrary to expert scientific consensus. The findings also revealed a misunderstanding of how memory works. The discrepancy between popular beliefs and science affirms the disadvantages of depending on intuition or common sense when assessing claims about psychology and the human mind.



What Are the Types of Amnesia?

Retrograde amnesia occurs when you lose “existing, previously made memories,” explained Rachel Barclay of Healthline, an American website and provider of health information. Anterograde amnesia prevents you from forming new memories, albeit temporarily. For instance, you can experience anterograde amnesia when you blackout from consuming too much alcohol.

Transient global amnesia (TGA) occurs more frequently in middle-aged and older adults. You will experience confusion or agitation, which comes and goes for several hours. It is also possible to experience memory loss hours before the attack. If you have TGA, you may not even have a lasting memory of the experience. Infantile or childhood amnesia is a phenomenon when you can’t remember the first three to five years of your life.



What Are the Causes of Amnesia?

It can be caused by damage to areas of the brain that play an important role in processing memories. Amnesia can be permanent unlike transient global amnesia, which refers to temporary memory loss. Amnesia can also be caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Those with dementia typically lose more recent memories and keep older memories longer.

Severe trauma and stress can lead to dissociative amnesia, which is a condition that makes your mind rejects thoughts, feelings, or information that a person is too overwhelmed to handle. Dissociative fugue, a specific type of dissociative amnesia, can cause a person to travel or wander around unexpectedly. While traveling, this condition can make a person forget some details of their life and lead to amnesia.

How Is Amnesia Treated?

Your doctors will focus on the underlying cause of your amnesia to treat it. For example, chemically induced amnesia from alcohol can be addressed through detoxification. Amnesia caused by mild head trauma is usually resolved without treatment, albeit gradually.

However, it may not recede in cases of severe head injury, though improvements will typically occur within six to nine months. Amnesia caused by dementia is often incurable, but your doctor may prescribe medications to aid learning and memory. If you have amnesia, you can also work with an occupational therapist to help you learn new information to replace lost memories or use intact memories as a facade for taking in new knowledge.

Using smart technology like smartphones or a hand-held tablet device is also beneficial for most people with amnesia. Those with severe amnesia can use these devices to remind themselves about their day-to-day tasks, important events, and medications. Assistance may also come in a form of low-tech memory aids such as wall calendars, notebooks, pill minders, and pictures of people and places.



Support for People With Amnesia

Living with amnesia can be frustrating to your friends or loved ones. Hence, it is recommended to talk with people who have amnesia as they can provide advice on living with this condition. You can ask your doctor if they have a support group for people with amnesia.

Amnesia is a common plot device in TV shows and movies, but this condition does not usually involve forgetting one’s identity. In reality, amnesia is composed of different types and can include a variety of treatment plans from smart devices to low-tech memory aids.