Movies' Portrayal of Amnesia Misleading

Amnesia Symptoms of Film Characters Aren't Realistic, Expert Says

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Dec. 17, 2004 -- The next time you see a movie character with amnesia, hit "pause" in your mind and think of Sallie Baxendale.

She's not a star. In fact, she's never even graced the big screen in a cameo role, as far as we know. Instead, Baxendale is a clinical neuropsychologist at London's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. And she's got a bone to pick with Hollywood over its portrayal of amnesia.

"Most amnesic conditions in films bear little relation to reality," says Baxendale in the journal BMJ.

She ought to know. For her article, Baxendale reviewed amnesia's depiction in a wide swath of movies, from recent comedies like 50 First Dates to films from Finland.

Most do a lousy job of depicting amnesia, says Baxendale.

For starters, profound amnesia -- forgetting just about everything -- is rare in real life. Head injuries hardly ever trigger or cure amnesia, but it happens all the time in the movies.

Real amnesia patients usually don't undergo radical personality changes, either. But shifting from bad guy to saint overnight is common with cinematic amnesia.

So you don't hit the cineplex for a primer on amnesia? Baxendale understands. Moviemakers use amnesia for dramatic effect or humor, moving the story line along. But those plot twists may warp the public's beliefs about amnesia.

Baxendale isn't calling for a rewrite. Instead, she wants doctors to be aware of movies' messages when counseling amnesia patients and their families. That way, they can debunk any myths about the condition.

You're probably not shocked to learn that movies don't mirror reality. But one of amnesia's most accurate big-screen portrayals may come as a surprise.

It's Finding Nemo.

Dory, a fish that befriends Nemo, has "profound memory disturbance," says Baxendale. Dory's condition isn't diagnosed in the film, but her symptoms sound familiar.

"Her difficulties in learning and retaining any new information, recalling names, and knowing where she is going or why are an accurate portrayal of the considerable memory difficulties faced daily by people with profound amnesia syndromes," Baxendale says.

"Although her condition is often played for laughs during the film, poignant aspects of her memory loss are also portrayed, when she is alone, lost, and profoundly confused."

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SOURCES: Baxendale, S. BMJ, December 18-25, 2004; vol 329: pp 1480-1483. News release, BMJ.
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