Don't you forget about me
Amnesia is a popular plot device in movies and television, but real-life instances of memory loss are arguably more bizarre than anything seen on the screen.
From Agatha Christie's 11-day memory lapse, to Patient H.M. who forgot events as soon as they occurred, to a woman who collected memories as if they were being experienced by someone else, here's a look at history's most bizarre amnesia cases.
One of the best-known patients in the history of neuroscience, Henry Molaison — "Patient H.M.," as he was called — suffered from severe memory impairment following experimental neurosurgery performed to control his epileptic seizures, according to a study published in 2009 in the journal Neuron.
In 1953, when "Patient H.M." was 27 years old, he underwent surgery that led to him forgetting daily events "nearly as fast as they occurred," a condition that lasted until his death in 2008. Neuroscientists studied his disordered memory for five decades, laying the foundation for modern scientific understanding of how memory works, and establishing the importance of the temporal lobe in regulating memory function.
Writer Agatha Christie captivated readers with her novels about detectives hunting for clues to solve mind-bending mysteries. But Christie became the subject of a real-life mystery in 1926, when she disappeared for 11 days and then was discovered 200 miles (320 kilometers) from where her abandoned car had been found. Christie claimed to have no recollection of where she had been or what had happened during that 11-day period.
After Christie was located and identified by her then-husband Archibald, he said in a newspaper interview, "She has suffered from the most complete loss of memory, and I do not think she knows who she is. She does not know me, and she does not know where she is. I am hoping that rest and quiet will restore her," Scientific American reported.
Christie may have been experiencing psychogenic amnesia, a rare condition that is psychological in origin and typically follows some type of trauma, researchers noted in a study published in 2003 in the journal Practical Neurology. However, some have speculated that Christie fabricated the entire episode as revenge against her husband for having an affair, according to Scientific American.
Matt Damon's popular film character Jason Bourne, a skilled assassin with amnesia, shares his name with another amnesiac — a 19th-century man named Ansel Bourne. In March of 1887, Bourne, an evangelical preacher from Rhode Island, woke up in Pennsylvania and couldn't remember how he got there. Nor could he remember any of the events of the past several months, according to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Bourne, who had been living under the name "A.J. Brown" since that January, was one of the first documented cases of "dissociative fugue," a type of psychogenic amnesia that is not the result of injury or disease, and during which the person functions normally but does not recall their identity.
A routine hour-long root canal procedure on March 14, 2005, left a 38-year-old British man, referred to by physicians as "W.O.," unable to form new memories — every morning since then, he wakes up believing it to be the day he received his root canal in 2005, the Washington Post reported.
Doctors were stymied by WO's amnesia, particularly since there appears to be nothing wrong with his brain, according to the Washington Post. His hippocampus is undamaged, and though he was initially diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia — memory loss following psychological trauma — there was no trauma immediately preceding his first amnesiac episode, researchers reported in a study published in 2016 in the journal Neurocase.
Apparently, WO's problem was not in the writing of the new memories, but in "recording" them, a process known as "consolidation" that occurs among synapses, allowing the brain to access the memories later, the study authors wrote.
After an airplane crash in March 2015, actor Harrison Ford sustained serious injuries that hospitalized him for nearly a month, and he also suffered gaps in his memory that left him unable to recall details of the accident.
Ford was piloting a World War II vintage aircraft when the engine failed. Nearby air traffic controllers suggested a landing procedure for the ailing plane, and that was the last thing Ford remembered until he woke up in the hospital five days later, he told television talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in October of that year.
Doctors told Ford that he likely was suffering from retrograde amnesia, which blocks access to memories of events that occur prior to an injury, he told Kimmel.
In 1985, a case of herpes encephalitis — a virus that attacks the brain and nervous system — left 47-year-old conductor, musician and musicologist Clive Wearing unable to remember anything before that year. He was also incapable of forming new memories, with a memory span lasting only a few seconds, the New Yorker reported in 2007.
Documented in 1986 in the film "Prisoner of Consciousness," Wearing visibly struggled with his condition, aware that something was terribly wrong with him and "under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before," his wife Deborah wrote in her memoir "Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia" (Doubleday, 2005).
However, his musical ability is unimpaired, and he is still able to sing, play and conduct music, according to the New Yorker.
Anthelme Mangin/Octave Monjoin
A French man found in a Lyon railway station in 1918 was unable to remember who he was and did not recognize his surroundings or recall how he got there. He was one of a group of 65 severely traumatized soldiers who had been returned to France by German officials, but he had no paperwork to confirm his identity, according to an account of the unfortunate man in Jean-Yves le Naour 's book "The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War" (Metropolitan Books, 2004).
He was shuttled between asylums, and when hospital administrators shared his picture in newspapers in 1922, 300 families proposed that he was their missing relative. Psychiatrists remained unconvinced that their pleas were anything other than wishful thinking, and the man remained unidentified and unclaimed. He was finally identified in 1930 as Octave Monjoin (he was previously known by his garbled pronunciation of his own name, recorded as "Anthelme Mangin"), but he never recovered from the trauma he suffered in the war, and he never regained his lost memory.
In 1986, a man identified as "Patient R.B." provided scientists with the first evidence that memory loss could result from damage to parts of the hippocampus, according to a study published in 1996 in the journal Current Biology.
After suffering a stroke, Patient R.B. experienced amnesia that prevented him from forming new memories and kept him from recalling memories from up to two years prior to his falling ill. After his death, a postmortem exam revealed that only a small portion of his brain — a region in the hippocampus — was damaged. These findings, along with data from other studies of people with amnesia, helped researchers link the hippocampus to memory loss, according to the study.
An unlucky bathroom tumble robbed Scott Bolzan, a former National Football League athlete, of 46 years of memories. After hitting the back of his head, Bolzan remembered nothing of his wife and children, of his time in the NFL, or of his subsequent career in aviation, ABC News reported.
A brain scan later showed that there was no blood flowing to the right temporal lobe of the brain, which is associated with memory. Bolzan's retrograde amnesia — which erases memories prior to an injury — is one of the most severe cases on record and is likely irreversible. However, Bolzan was not mentally impaired in any other way and can still form new memories, according to ABC.
At the age of 32, single mother Naomi Jacobs woke up one morning in 2008 having forgotten nearly two decades — all the details of her life since 1992 — and believing herself to be 15 years old. Her own home was completely unfamiliar to her, and she didn't recognize her 10-year-old son, though she could still recall phone numbers and could drive a car, the Daily Mirror reported.
Jacobs had kept meticulous diaries over the years, and she used them to piece together the details of her forgotten life, which included accounts of drug use, psychotic episodes and abusive relationships, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Her memory returned slowly, with most of it restored within eight weeks, and she wrote about the experience in her book "Forgotten Girl: A Powerful True Story of Amnesia, Secrets and Second Chances" (Pan Macmillan, 2015).
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Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science editor for the channels Animals and Planet Earth. She also reports on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.