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5.9: Amnesia

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    Figure 19. Patients with damage to the temporal lobes may experience anterograde amnesia and/or retrograde amnesia. [Image: en:Anatomography,, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP,]

    Clearly, remembering everything would be maladaptive, but what would it be like to remember nothing? We will now consider a profound form of forgetting called amnesia that is distinct from more ordinary forms of forgetting. Most of us have had exposure to the concept of amnesia through popular movies and television. Typically, in these fictionalized portrayals of amnesia, a character suffers some type of blow to the head and suddenly has no idea who they are and can no longer recognize their family or remember any events from their past. After some period of time (or another blow to the head), their memories come flooding back to them. Unfortunately, this portrayal of amnesia is not very accurate. What does amnesia typically look like?

    The most widely studied amnesic patient was known by his initials H. M. (Scoville & Milner, 1957). As a teenager, H. M. suffered from severe epilepsy, and in 1953, he underwent surgery to have both of his medial temporal lobes removed to relieve his epileptic seizures. The medial temporal lobes encompass the hippocampus and surrounding cortical tissue. Although the surgery was successful in reducing H. M.’s seizures and his general intelligence was preserved, the surgery left H. M. with a profound and permanent memory deficit. From the time of his surgery until his death in 2008, H. M. was unable to learn new information, a memory impairment called anterograde amnesia. H. M. could not remember any event that occurred since his surgery, including highly significant ones, such as the death of his father. He could not remember a conversation he had a few minutes prior or recognize the face of someone who had visited him that same day. He could keep information in his short-term, or working, memory, but when his attention turned to something else, that information was lost for good. It is important to note that H. M.’s memory impairment was restricted to declarative memory, or conscious memory for facts and events. H. M. could learn new motor skills and showed improvement on motor tasks even in the absence of any memory for having performed the task before (Corkin, 2002).

    In addition to anterograde amnesia, H. M. also suffered from temporally graded retrograde amnesia. Retrograde amnesia refers to an inability to retrieve old memories that occurred before the onset of amnesia. Extensive retrograde amnesia in the absence of anterograde amnesia is very rare (Kopelman, 2000). More commonly, retrograde amnesia co-occurs with anterograde amnesia and shows a temporal gradient, in which memories closest in time to the onset of amnesia are lost, but more remote memories are retained (Hodges, 1994). In the case of H. M., he could remember events from his childhood, but he could not remember events that occurred a few years before the surgery.

    Amnesiac patients with damage to the hippocampus and surrounding medial temporal lobes typically manifest a similar clinical profile as H. M. The degree of anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia depend on the extent of the medial temporal lobe damage, with greater damage associated with a more extensive impairment (Reed & Squire, 1998). Anterograde amnesia provides evidence for the role of the hippocampus in the formation of long-lasting declarative memories, as damage to the hippocampus results in an inability to create this type of new memory. Similarly, temporally graded retrograde amnesia can be seen as providing further evidence for the importance of memory consolidation (Squire & Alvarez, 1995). A memory depends on the hippocampus until it is consolidated and transferred into a more durable form that is stored in the cortex. According to this theory, an amnesiac patient like H. M. could remember events from his remote past because those memories were fully consolidated and no longer depended on the hippocampus.

    The classic amnesiac syndrome we have considered here is sometimes referred to as organic amnesia, and it is distinct from functional, or dissociative, amnesia. Functional amnesia involves a loss of memory that cannot be attributed to brain injury or any obvious brain disease and is typically classified as a mental disorder rather than a neurological disorder (Kihlstrom, 2005). The clinical profile of dissociative amnesia is very different from that of patients who suffer from amnesia due to brain damage or deterioration. Individuals who experience dissociative amnesia often have a history of trauma. Their amnesia is retrograde, encompassing autobiographical memories from a portion of their past. In an extreme version of this disorder, people enter a dissociative fugue state, in which they lose most or all of their autobiographical memories and their sense of personal identity. They may be found wandering in a new location, unaware of who they are and how they got there. Dissociative amnesia is controversial, as both the causes and existence of it have been called into question. The memory loss associated with dissociative amnesia is much less likely to be permanent than it is in organic amnesia.

    Just as the case study of the mnemonist Shereshevsky illustrates what a life with a near perfect memory would be like, amnesiac patients show us what a life without memory would be like. Each of the mechanisms we discussed that explain everyday forgetting—encoding failures, decay, insufficient retrieval cues, interference, and intentional attempts to forget—help to keep us highly efficient, retaining the important information and for the most part, forgetting the unimportant. Amnesiac patients allow us a glimpse into what life would be like if we suffered from profound forgetting and perhaps show us that our everyday lapses in memory are not so bad after all.

    We now understand that Amnesia is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. Psychologist Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied K.C. for years. K.C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes,

    the outstanding fact about K.C.’s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two. (Tulving, 2002, p. 14)

    Anterograde Amnesia

    There are two common types of amnesia: anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia (Figure 1). Anterograde amnesia is commonly caused by brain trauma, such as a blow to the head.

    With anterograde amnesia, you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury. The hippocampus is usually affected (McLeod, 2011). This suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories.

    Many people with this form of amnesia are unable to form new episodic or semantic memories, but are still able to form new procedural memories (Bayley & Squire, 2002). This was true of H. M., which was discussed earlier. The brain damage caused by his surgery resulted in anterograde amnesia. H. M. would read the same magazine over and over, having no memory of ever reading it—it was always new to him. He also could not remember people he had met

    after his surgery. If you were introduced to H. M. and then you left the room for a few minutes, he would not know you upon your return and would introduce himself to you again. However, when presented the same puzzle several days in a row, although he did not remember having seen the puzzle before, his speed at solving it became faster each day (because of relearning) (Corkin, 1965, 1968).

    Figure 19. This diagram illustrates the timeline of retrograde and anterograde amnesia. Memory problems that extend back in time before the injury and prevent retrieval of information previously stored in long-term memory are known as retrograde amnesia.
    Figure 20. To help remember which amnesia is which (retrograde vs. anterograde), just think of the word “retro” (e.g., that lamp from the 70’s is so retro) to help remind you that this amnesia deals with forgetting old memories. [Image: Richard Davis]

    Retrograde Amnesia

    Retrograde amnesia is loss of memory for events that occurred prior to the trauma. People with retrograde amnesia cannot remember some or even all of their past. They have difficulty remembering episodic memories. What if you woke up in the hospital one day and there were people surrounding your bed claiming to be your spouse, your children, and your parents? The trouble is you don’t recognize any of them. You were in a car accident, suffered a head injury, and now have retrograde amnesia. You don’t remember anything about your life prior to waking up in the hospital. This may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Hollywood has been fascinated with the amnesia plot for nearly a century, going all the way back to the film Garden of Lies from 1915 to more recent movies such as the Jason Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. However, for real-life sufferers of retrograde amnesia, like former NFL football player Scott Bolzan, the story is not a Hollywood movie. Bolzan fell, hit his head, and deleted 46 years of his life in an instant. He is now living with one of the most extreme cases of retrograde amnesia on record.Interactive Element

    Link to Learning

    View the video story profiling Scott Bolzan’s amnesia and his attempts to get his life back.


    Ø Amnesia: loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma

    Ø Anterograde amnesia: loss of memory for events that occur after the brain trauma

    Ø Retrograde amnesia: loss of memory for events that occurred prior to brain trauma

    This page titled 5.9: Amnesia is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.

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