Countless stories in fiction use amnesia as an integral plot point. Thrillers like Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne” series and “Memento” create suspenseful mysteries featuring amnesiac protagonists, while many other films such as “Finding Nemo” and “50 First Dates” use the condition for comedic effect. Although amnesia works as a convenient tool for writers, its prominence in fictional stories has created numerous misconceptions about the real-world condition.
Before delving into the differences between fiction and reality, it’s worth noting that amnesia is a broad term that denotes most forms of memory loss incited by external factors or internal problems, such as traumatic events and physical injury. While there are numerous types of amnesia, they can all be classified as either “retrograde” or “anterograde.” Retrograde amnesia refers to the loss of preexisting memories and is the most common form of the condition in fiction. In contrast, anterograde amnesia refers to the inability to retain new memories. Both types appear throughout many popular films and novels, but fiction rarely comes close to capturing the reality of these severe conditions.
Representations of Retrograde Amnesia
When discussing memory loss, most fiction automatically assumes amnesia wipes away all details of a person’s identity and life experiences. “The Bourne Identity” offers one of the most famous examples of this premise, which follows the titular Jason Bourne as he investigates his mysterious past while using his conveniently retained multilingual and combat skills to evade government assassins.
Though “The Bourne Identity” set the modern template for depicting amnesia in fiction, its inaccuracies immediately begin in its simple premise. The complete erasure of memory almost never occurs in real life, as most cases of amnesia only affect memories related to a specific period. In some rare cases, psychologically traumatic events will trigger dissociative amnesia, which causes patients to forget important parts of their identity. As with traditional retrograde examples, however, this never results in a loss of a person’s entire memory.
One of the only ways for someone to completely forget their past is through a sudden cognitive disruption called transient global amnesia (TGA). While suffering from TGA, patients cannot recall prior events nor form new memories. Fortunately, these disruptions usually last for a few hours at most, meaning a person experiencing TGA will return to their ordinary cognitive state in less than a day. Two studies from 1993 and 2004 documented some rare exceptions to this, citing cases in which the effects of TGA lasted multiple years. Unlike Bourne, however, the patients involved in these studies also suffered from severe anterograde symptoms, preventing them from leading self-sufficient lives.
Besides TGA, psychologists discovered another form of complete memory loss during the 1887 case of Ansel Bourne, the potential namesake for Ludlum’s original character. The real-life Bourne spent most of his life as a preacher and carpenter in Providence, Rhode Island, before suddenly leaving town on Jan. 17. Two months later, he was found in Norristown, Pennsylvania after living there for two months under the name “A.J. Brown,” but he lacked any recollection of the events that transpired during this period. Bourne was initially diagnosed with amnesia, but later tests revealed this to be a case of dissociative identity disorder (also called split-personality disorder), where his two personalities of “Bourne” and “Brown” weren’t aware of each other’s existence. Though Bourne’s memory loss originated from a dissociative fugue state and not amnesia, his case inspired many modern misconceptions that still thrive in fiction.
One of the most prominent myths inadvertently formed by Bourne is that amnesia can completely alter someone’s personality. Writers often use this trope to turn an antagonistic character into a nicer person, as seen 1991’s “Regarding Henry.” The movie follows Henry Turner, a greedy businessman who prioritizes personal wealth over his family until a near-fatal shooting leaves his brain damaged, causing him to forget his past life and basic motor functions. As the story progresses and Turner gradually recovers, he develops a kinder personality that runs contrary to his former self.
While the film successfully depicts the hardships of recovering from amnesia for both the patient and their loved ones, the movie’s attempts at accuracy falter due to its poor depiction of amnesia’s impact on personalities. Amnesiacs do exhibit noticeable changes in personality, but these changes never result in a complete inversion of their prior characteristics. An article by NeuroPsyFi notes that the most common amnesia-induced changes in personality are poor judgment and a lack of impulse control, primarily due to difficulties in adapting to social situations or understanding the consequences of one’s actions. In reality, Henry’s personality would have likely changed for the worse, and the movie’s ignorance toward this and other long-term consequences of amnesia detract from its attempt to accurately portray the condition.
Despite their flaws, both works realistically portray amnesia in some respects. Although Bourne’s perfect memory of his past skills may seem overly convenient, this point is surprisingly accurate as amnesia rarely affects a person’s memory of motor skills and learned abilities. The brain stores this knowledge as procedural memories — more commonly known as “muscle memory” — which are only used on a subconscious level when performing learned actions like riding a bike or using a fork. The knowledge of past events that Bourne and many other amnesiacs forget is called declarative memory, which requires the brain to actively recall information from the hippocampus, the part of the brain most affected by amnesia.
Likewise, “Regarding Henry” accurately illustrates common symptoms of traumatic brain injury, such as inhibited social skills and difficulties with complex speech. Additionally, the grounded portrayal of the financial and social costs of amnesia makes “Regarding Henry” one of the only attempts at portraying the severe impact the condition has on ordinary lives.
Depictions of Anterograde Amnesia
Anterograde amnesia appears far less often in media than retrograde amnesia, likely due to the difficulty of writing a character that struggles to form new memories. However, this challenge also makes its few depictions in fiction notable for both good and bad reasons. Possibly the most infamous depiction of anterograde amnesia is the 2004 romantic comedy “50 First Dates.” In the film, a marine biologist named Henry falls in love with Lucy, an amnesiac who forgets an entire day’s worth of events whenever she falls asleep. Despite her condition, Henry tries to maintain their relationship by staging multiple “first dates” throughout the film.
Compared to the other works discussed so far, “50 First Dates” is the least concerned with accuracy. Lucy’s amnesia is referred to as “Goldfield’s Syndrome,” which is completely fictitious in both its name and symptoms. In the film, Lucy’s amnesia traps her in a routine wherein she eats the same exact meals and performs the same tasks each day. While amnesia prevents people from realizing the passage of time, this rigid behavior doesn’t occur in real-life cases, though those with the condition may repeat questions and phrases during conversations. Furthermore, Lucy’s memory loss occurs while she is asleep, which contradicts multiple studies that suggest sleep may strengthen the brain’s recollection of memories. “50 First Dates” never claims to be an accurate depiction of amnesia, but its glaring mistakes highlight how little attention is given to the reality of the condition.
Fortunately, anterograde amnesia has had much more luck with receiving realistic depictions in media. Only a year before the release of “50 First Dates,” Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” delivered one of the most well-known and accurate fictional depictions of amnesia through its character Dory. Though her condition isn’t as severe as the amnesiac characters of most other films, her subtle lapses in memory regarding names, locations and recent events successfully illustrate the daily struggles of people who share her condition. Although the movie often uses Dory’s amnesia for comedic relief, it received glowing commendations from psychologists for this unusually grounded depiction.
An analysis of the film by Danielle Brinckman also noted its depiction of a social support system, with Dory stating that she feels at home around Marlin (the film’s main protagonist) and believes this helps her remember more. This sentiment holds some scientific basis, as Brinckman cited studies that found caretakers and other forms of social support to be essential to the care of amnesia patients.
One final depiction of anterograde amnesia — and possibly one of the best in fiction — is Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” The film follows Leonard Shelby, a former investigator who develops anterograde amnesia after two masked men attack him and kill his wife. However, his condition causes his memory to constantly reset every few minutes, forcing him to leave various clues for himself in the form of notes, tattoos and photographs. While this plot would be difficult to execute in a traditional format, the film shows Shelby’s journey in reverse chronological order, with each scene representing a moment before his memory resets. Additionally, these scenes are divided by monochrome flashbacks to the beginning of his journey, which helps clarify when each memory begins and ends.
As a result of this unorthodox structure, the audience starts every scene with just as little context as Shelby himself, creating the feeling of living in the present that characterizes the daily life of many anterograde amnesiacs. Whereas “Finding Nemo” encourages the audience to empathize with Dory from an outside perspective, “Memento” ensures the viewer consistently shares Shelby’s distrust and anxiety.
While much more of an action thriller than “Finding Nemo,” “Memento” highlights the everyday struggles of anterograde amnesia. Shelby can’t remember the people he meets or events that transpire only minutes before. This leads to many of the same difficulties faced by Dory, but the dangerous situations that Shelby’s journey leads to make his amnesia much more of a vulnerability. Additionally, according to a 2020 study, his use of visual aids not only allows him to quickly create clues but may serve as a better reminder of past events than a written journal.
However, the most notable accuracy that even the best depictions of amnesia often ignore involves the uncertain nature of his preexisting memories. Although Shelby recalls parts of his past as an investigator and the attack that led to his amnesia, he questions specific details of these memories that conflict with later revelations. Most people with severe amnesia don’t have a set cutoff point between their lost and retained memories, instead possessing a large gap in their recollection in which they struggle to remember specific details.
To create an accurate portrayal of amnesia, “Memento” took inspiration from the real-life study of an amnesiac man named Henry Molaison (often shortened to H.M.). In 1953, H.M. received a surgery that was meant to cure epileptic seizures by removing the hippocampus and the amygdala, but this procedure unfortunately left him with a blend of severe retrograde and anterograde amnesia. However, the years of research and observation about H.M. revealed some of the fundamental mechanics of amnesia. While these studies continue to be ignored by most fiction, his roles as the primary inspiration for “Memento” and the potential namesake of the lead protagonists in both “Regarding Henry” and “50 First Dates” demonstrate his importance to our modern understanding of amnesia.
The use of tropes to portray amnesia in fiction isn’t necessarily the problem. Films, novels and even video games have all provided captivating narratives using unrealistic portrayals of amnesia. However, because these tropes are so prevalent in fiction, they have unfortunately replaced most people’s understanding of real amnesia. Because of this, films like “Memento” and “Finding Nemo” are important for educating audiences about the difficult circumstances people with the condition face on an everyday basis. Tropes and cliches surrounding amnesia don’t need to disappear, but more works need to provide an honest perspective of amnesia to help viewers learn to distinguish between the reality and fiction of the condition.