Movies vs. Real Life: Amnesia

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a heartwarming romantic film is ready to tug at your heart strings. Women and girls will be dragging their boyfriends, husbands or other friends to see ‘The Vow’ this weekend. The movie features the story of a woman who is in an awful car crash and wakes up with no recollection of the past five years- including that fact that she is married to her husband. The movie follows his struggle to make his wife fall in love with him again. Sigh. So romantic.

But doctors and real life amnesia victims are shaking their heads that Hollywood has gotten it wrong again. Their version of an amnesia victim is not realistic.

The director defends the movie saying that he put in special direction to make it as authentic as possible. But stopped short of one of the most common- a shaved head. (Amnesia victims tend to have a shaved head so the doctor can drill a hull into the skull to relieve pressure on the brain from any swelling.) Because, let’s be honest, no one wants to see a Hollywood starlet with a shaved noggin.

So what else is Hollywood getting wrong about amnesia?

First off, profound amnesia (where the victim forgets everything) is extremely rare. But the movies make it seem like that is the only type of amnesia- think “The Bourne” series or that famous twin episode of  “Full House”.

In the Hollywood version, the memory is completely gone, but suddenly it all comes back to the victim and they live happily ever after. This is not the case for real-life amnesia victims.

Generally, amnesia comes in two types: retrograde and anterograde. Anterograde amnesia is the kind Hollywood enjoys glamorizing. It is when the victim cannot remember past events or details. He or she often remembers who himself is, but not other people around him.

Retrograde amnesia is the most common. The victim is unable to formulate new memories and long new information. Childhood memories remain intact and easy to draw upon, but new information like who is the current president or what year it is may be lost. And intelligence- knowing about certain things- is also not lost. Speech, reading and other communication skills are still intact.

Hollywood exaggerates the causes of amnesia as well. Amnesia can be caused by a stroke, brain problems (inflammation due to a virus, lack of oxygen from a heart attack) or seizures. Amnesia can have psychological ties as well. If someone has suffered a traumatic event- like a violent crime- memory loss could be side effect. It is very rare for a head trauma to cause amnesia, even in a really bad car accident. Sure, serious head trauma might make the victim confused or disoriented, but total amnesia is extremely rare.

So why do we feed into Hollywood’s perception of amnesia? Movie-goers love the idea of someone getting a second chance at life. Wouldn’t we all like to forget the stupid things we’ve done for a chance to start over?

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