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Memories aren't made of this: amnesia at the movies

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 16 December 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1480
  1. Sallie Baxendale, clinical neuropsychologist (
  1. 1 Department of Neuropsychology, Box 37, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London WC1N 3BG

    Most amnesic conditions in films bear little relation to reality. Since movies both inform and reflect public opinion, doctors should be aware of the prevalent myths about amnesia. This could be invaluable when informing patients and their relatives of a diagnosis of an amnesic condition and its likely prognosis

    Although clinically rare, profound amnesia is a common cinematic device. In 1915, film makers spotted the dramatic potential of an amnesic syndrome, and it has continued to provide the vehicle for both tragedy and comedy. This review examines the frequent misconceptions and occasionally strikingly accurate portrayals of amnesic syndromes with reference to the scientific and medical case literature.

    Early cinema

    Hollywood's recent offerings, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and 50 First Dates (2004), head up a long tradition of movies featuring amnesic characters. No fewer than 10 silent movies (before 1926) do so. In one of the earliest, Garden of Lies (1915), predictable complications ensue when a doctor hires a new husband for an amnesic bride in an attempt to jog her memory. This film was an early trendsetter, and nuptials have precipitated amnesia in later films (Samaya, 1975; Kisses for Breakfast, 1941). In 1915 The Right of Way was one of the first films to depict amnesia as the result of an assault, and the trigger for starting life afresh. These themes are seen again in The Victory of Conscience (1916) and have been consistently used throughout the decades to modern times (see Amateur,1994).

    Embedded Image

    50 First Dates maintains a venerable movie tradition of portraying an amnesiac syndrome that bears no relation to any known neurological or psychiatric condition


    Amnesic syndromes

    In the real world, most profound amnesic syndromes have a clear neurological or psychiatric basis. True dissociative amnesia or fugue states are rare, but people …

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