Expert Voices

Amnesia is Nothing Like it Seems on Film (Podcast)

forgetful, memory, amnesia
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Wendy Suzuki is a professor of neural science and psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. A popular speaker, she is a regular presenter at the World Science Festival and TedX, and is frequently interviewed on television and in print for her expertise regarding the effects of exercise on brain function. Her first book, "Healthy Brain, Happy Life" (Dey Street Books, 2015) will be released in May. Suzuki contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

Julianne Moore recently won an Oscar for her performance as a university professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease in "Still Alice." Julie Christie was nominated for an Oscar for a similarly moving performance of an Alzheimer's patient in "Away from Her." In both films, the devastating memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's disease are beautifully and accurately depicted in poignant detail.

Not so for amnesia. Unlike the fidelity with which Alzheimer's has been shown in recent films, when amnesia drives the plot line, screenwriters pay little attention to truth, accuracy or the underlying neurobiology. 

Take the feel-good rom-com "50 First Dates." On the surface, this movie has the appearance of truth and accuracy. For example the fictional amnesic patient played by Drew Barrymore has good memory for events that happened before her accident, called retrograde memory and poor memory for events that happened after her accident, or anterograde amnesia. Good so far. 

But the problem starts when we learn what kind of anterograde memory deficit she has. We learn that Barrymore’s character can go through an entire day with normal memory for events, but then her memory for the previous day gets erased at night when she goes to sleep. This is the moment when neuroscientists start cringing, rolling their eyes and mumbling about why the director hadn't consulted a memory professional about their movie! 

Why is this so wrong? This pattern of memory loss never happens in real life. Once a patient has amnesia their memory for events is never normal again. 

Moreover, while the movie suggests that sleep wipes memory clean, we now have strong evidence that sleep actually works in the completely opposite way to strengthen or "consolidate" our memories for the events of the preceding day. Their depiction of amnesia in this movie is "diabolically" wrong. 

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My friend and fellow neuroscientist Neal Cohen, a professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, has another approach to these bad examples of amnesia in pop culture. He teaches a class where he uses all the bad examples (including "50 First Dates") — as well as the rare, accurate depictions of amnesia — as a powerful tool to show his students exactly how amnesia works. It's a very popular class, engaging, funny and informative. As a final assignment, Neal asks his students to write their own mini screenplay that accurately — and dramatically — depicts a character with amnesia. [Famous Amnesia Patient's Brain Cut into 2,401 Slices]

I've always been impressed with the ingenuity of this idea for a class, so I interviewed Cohen about all his favorite examples of amnesia in pop culture for my podcast "Totally Cerebral" (part of the "Transistor" series covering current events and curiosities in science).

And for more on amnesia, catch my first two podcasts in this series, which describe the neuropsychology and the life of the most famous amnesic patient ever studied, the patient known as H.M: Untangling the Mystery of Memory and The Man Without a Memory.

About Transistor: Transistor is a STEM podcast from PRX. Three scientist hosts — a biologist, an astrophysicist, and a neuroscientist — report on curiosities and current events in and beyond their fields. Sprinkled among their episodes are special science stories from around the globe. Presented with support from the Sloan Foundation. You can subscribe to Transistor here

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Center for Neural Science at New York University