Writer Research: Amnesia

How many times have we seen it in pop culture? A character develops complete amnesia from a knock on the head, only to have their memory miraculously restored by further head trauma. This might make for good (or not so good) drama, but we know these aren’t realistic portrayals.

(If you didn’t know, don’t tell me. Let me keep my delusions.)

If you’d like to write a realistic amnesic character, it’s important to know three things:

  1. What type of memory is affected?
  2. What variation(s) of amnesia do they have?
  3. What caused it?

Types of Memory:

Declarative/Explicit

Consists of memories which are consciously accessed. These include Episodic Memory (recollection of personal experiences and events) and Semantic Memory (knowledge of facts).

Non-Declarative/Implicit

Used subconsciously, often to perform familiar tasks.

Types of Memory

Types of Amnesia:

Retrograde

Portrayed in popular movies like  Overboard, people with retrograde amnesia have forgotten past events, experiences, and/or knowledge.

Imagine memories as pathways in your brain. The older/more frequently accessed they are, the more established they become. This is why newer memories are far more likely to be forgotten. Total amnesia or forgetting basic information like one’s name is exceedingly rare.

Anterograde

Those with anterograde amnesia have difficulty forming new memories, à la 50 First Dates or Memento. Here’s a diagram of how memories are formed:

Memory Formation

People with this affliction have trouble either encoding new memories or retrieving them. For those who experience this long term, there is evidence that the memories are still recorded and affect the victim on a subconscious level.

Dissociative

When someone experiences a traumatic event such as a violent crime or severe accident (either as the victim or the perpetrator), they may develop dissociative amnesia (also called psychogenic amnesia). There are two types – global dissociative amnesia affects memory of one’s identity (see Jason Bourne) and situational dissociative amnesia affects memory of specific traumatic events. This form of amnesia is almost always temporary, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few months, but it can also worsen into a fugue state.

Fugue State

Those in a fugue state lose all knowledge of who they are and what has happened to them, but they’re driven by a need to escape the trauma which caused their condition. Often the victim will create a new identity for themselves and live as that person for however long the state persists. Upon waking from a fugue state, one may or may not remember what they have been doing or why. Typically, sufferers of this condition have had prolonged trouble with depression, seizures, and/or brain damage across a large portion of the brain.

Causes of Amnesia:

Physical Trauma – Damage to the hippocampus will typically result in anterograde amnesia while retrograde comes from damage to other areas of the brain. Those who suffer head trauma often don’t remember having sustained the injury, which can extend for quite some time before or after the incident occurred.

Psychological Trauma – Extended periods of high stress cause the release of hormones that reduce the brain’s ability to form memories.

Encephalitis – Inflammation of the brain as a result of viral infection or autoimmune response can cause debilitating memory issues.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – Wernicke’s encephalopathy involves lesions on the central nervous system. Korsakoff’s syndrome is usually the result of alcoholism or malnutrition. The two diseases often occur together as a result of thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Stroke, seizures, tumors, degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, brain surgery, damage from lack of oxygen to the brain, and sedatives can also cause memory loss of varying degrees.

Treatment and Recovery:

Amnesics may have occupational therapy to maximize their memory utilization but, for the most part, there is little a doctor can do outside of treating the underlying cause. The majority of cases are anterograde, so treatment focuses on coping mechanisms such as building a routine and the use of technological assistance like smartphones or a pocket calendar. Amnesia is often temporary, though one may never regain all of the memories lost. Recovery may happen in a matter of hours, days, months, or not at all.

For more insight, read the stories of real life amnesics in Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M and Forever Today: A Memoir Of Love And Amnesia.

Author: Dee

Dee is a moderator and blogger for Story Scribes. In her downtime she tries out various crafts, plays video games, and makes music. Currently, she’s working on a fantasy story that’s been trying to escape for a few years.

7 thoughts on “Writer Research: Amnesia”

  1. I’m definitely going to be referring to this article and the books you recommended for the series I’m writing. Thanks, Dee!

    I have a quick question about the last sentence, “Recovery may happen in a matter of hours, days, months, or not at all.” Is it possible for recovery to take years, or the maximum time definitely months?

  2. My brother had an accident (he busted his head open playing Capture the Flag), and it took well over a year for him to recover. His dizziness lasted for months, and he barely remembers his freshman/sophomore year of high school. It was definitely a gradual process.

    Great article, Dee! Thank you!

    1. And thank you for sharing! I had a dorm-mate in college who got hit on the head and forgot all her time at school (about 2 years at that point). Her family brought her back to visit about a year afterward but she still didn’t really remember anything. She did recognize her roommates, though, and was mostly past the other symptoms (dizziness, etc.).

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