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What is Amnesia?

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco

Amnesia is a disturbance of the brain that causes the person to forget a period of his or her life. Despite being a popular plot in movies and novels, the condition is quite rare in real life. It has two basic causes: organic, where the brain is actually damaged, and functional, where the causes are psychological. Memory loss can happen to anybody, at any age.

    There are a number of common types of amnesia:
  • Traumatic amnesia is often temporary and happens after a head injury. The duration and intensity of the memory loss is related to the type of injury received, but memory often returns after the patient recovers.
  • Dissociative amnesia is common in people who experience traumatic events such as rape. While the person can remember everything about her life, the specific traumatic event is blocked from memory. Childhood amnesia is closely related, and it involves the blockage of events from childhood, usually involving abuse or traumatic experiences.
  • Global amnesia, the most complete type of memory loss, often accompanies post-traumatic stress disorder. While memory often does not completely return, the patient can sometimes experience spontaneous flashes of memory, often of the traumatic events itself. This type is most often seen in elderly people.
  • Some physiological disorders, such as long-term alcoholism, malnutrition, and Alzheimer's disease can also cause memory loss.
  • Damage to the temporal lobes of the brain usually result in either anterograde amnesia, where new events cannot be remembered for more than a few minutes, or retrograde amnesia, where the person will not be able to remember anything before the accident but is capable of creating new memories.
  • One of the most common types is source amnesia, in which a person remembers information but is unable to explain how or when he obtained it.
Memory loss can be caused by chronic alcohol use.
Memory loss can be caused by chronic alcohol use.

The most common treatment for functional amnesia is psychotherapy. Some experts also recommend hypnosis as a way for the patient to recall forgotten events. Exposing the person to common places and people can sometimes help trigger past memories as well.

There is little that can be done for patients who suffer from organic amnesia. The brain may eventually recover itself partially, allowing some of the memories to return. However, if the brain cells are permanently damaged, there is no way of turning back the clock. Certain degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, usually result in permanent memory loss.

Discussion Comments


My grandmother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she has already started losing some of her memories. I am having a hard time adjusting to the fact that the memory loss will be permanent.

She has already forgotten a lot of the things that we normally do together. We always go to the movies on Tuesday, and when I showed up at her house last week to pick her up, she had no idea why I was there.

I know that as the disease progresses, she will ultimately forget who I am and even who she is. I have to watch her memory die slowly before her body dies with it. This is really hard.


@shell4life - You are fortunate that you only forgot one short time period of your life. My brother injured his head in a bad car wreck, and he forgot even his name.

It was heartbreaking to visit him in the hospital and have him ask me who I was. He was so flustered, and he felt really lost, because he had no identity.

It took a few months, but some of his memory did return. Though he knows his family and recalls the major events in his life, he can’t remember smaller things, like what he and his wife did on their last vacation and how they celebrated their first anniversary.

We all hope that one day, those things will return to him. However, the doctor seems to think that they probably won’t.


I experienced amnesia after I fell off my bike and hit my head. I still remembered who I was, but I could not remember what I had done that day.

Someone saw me lying on the ground and called 911. I didn’t wake up until I was in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital.

About two weeks after the accident, I started getting flashes of that day. Finally, I was able to recall everything, from what I had eaten for breakfast to where I was headed on my bike. I remembered a squirrel running out in front of me, causing me to wreck, fall off my bike, and hit my head on the pavement.

It was very scary not being able to remember an entire morning of my life. I was happy that it all came back to me, because it meant that my brain function was returning to normal.


Some people are actually grateful for post-traumatic amnesia. My cousin was abused by her stepfather as a young child, and though she can recall not liking him, she can’t remember the details of the actual abuse.

She told me about it long ago, right after it happened. Within a few years, she had forgotten all about it. She had a fear and a deep dislike of him, though.

She told me that she is so glad that she doesn’t recall the details. She doesn’t want to undergo hypnosis to retrieve them, and she says it is best this way.

My only argument with her is that I think she should press charges and expose him for what he is. What if he does this to some other child down the road? He should be put away.

However, I understand her not wanting to relive the stress of it all. Who knows? If I were in that situation, I might think the same way.


@robbie21 - I read a book that was kind of similar to "Fifty First Dates," but gave it this dark twist; it was "Before I Go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson. She had both kinds of amnesia, retrograde (going back several years) and anterograde, and just like in the movie, every morning she would wake up not remembering.

Her twist was that she wasn't sure she could trust her husband; she didn't even remember marrying him, they had hardly any photos of their lives together, and of course his power of her was absolute - he controlled the flow of information.

It was partially inspired by a real patient, I think; there was a guy who had anterograde amnesia (which is, I think, even rarer than retrograde; it is almost unknown). Every time his wife walked in the room, he would swear that he had never met her before, but that now that he had, he loved her instantly. What a love story!


Amnesia hardly ever happens but it sure makes for a good story! Drama or comedy. I really liked "Fifty First Dates," where Drew Barrymore played a woman who had had an accident and every morning work up thinking that it was the same date, the day she'd had her accident. So she anterograde amnesia; she could not remember new events for more than a day.

Her father and brother were dedicated to make sure she had a happy day each day, just thinking it was the same day. (They even watched the same movie every night, the one she gave her father for his birthday - it was "The Sixth Sense," and they had to pretend to be surprised by the ending every single time.)

Then, of course, she met Adam Sandler, and he came up with the idea of letting her live her life and just filling her in every morning. It was very sweet because they were all so devoted to her and just not always in agreement how best to take care of her.


no, probably not, unless you smashed your head into something, but even then it would only be temporar.


is it possible to deliberately give yourself amnesia?

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    • Memory loss can be caused by chronic alcohol use.
      By: kmiragaya
      Memory loss can be caused by chronic alcohol use.
    • It can take months or even years to recover from amnesia caused by a severe head injury.
      By: william87
      It can take months or even years to recover from amnesia caused by a severe head injury.
    • Someone who overworks themselves may face brief moments of memory loss.
      By: Marijus
      Someone who overworks themselves may face brief moments of memory loss.
    • Memory loss can happen to anyone, at any age.
      By: Sandor Kacso
      Memory loss can happen to anyone, at any age.