What is amnesia like?

Can you “snap” out of it?
Can it last forever?
Is it like electro-shock treatment?
Especifically, what kind of injury can get you amnesia?
If you were a cranky sad guy, could you be happy after forgetting everything?

What kind of condition does guy pearce have on the movie “memento”, does it happen often to people?

Hmmm…I think I used to know this…

If memory serves me, I believe the condition Guy Pearce had in Memento was a nonalcoholic version of Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Korsakoff’s Syndrome, usually found in very heavy drinkers, is a type of amnesia in which the individual can’t remember anything after a certain point in their lives.

In Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. Sacks tells of a patient he once had named Jimmie G. who was a heavy alcoholic and suffered from Korsakoff’s (Dr. Sacks spelled it “Korsakov’s”) Syndrome. Jimmie couldn’t remember anything after the time he served in the Navy in World War II. He had to constantly make up the “story of his life” every second. He mistook Dr. Sacks to be everything from a customer at his deli to his Kosher butcher. Additionally, he couldn’t even recognise his own brother, since he only knew his brother as a 30-year-old man, not a 60-year-old.

As for what amnesia feels like, I actually had it once (documented), and it feels like a “blacked-out” period in your life where someone would tell you you did something, but you would swear on your grave that it never happened.

If I’m incorrect on all this, somebody please correct me.

  • Adam

i don’t remember

I asked my wife, who is a psychotherapist and has treated a few patients with amnesia. According to her, complete amnesia is very, very, very rare. What usually occurs is that a traumatic event happens to an individual and they completely block the event and surrounding events from their minds (she said she’s seen it most in childhood sexual abuse victims and post traumatic stress disorder patients). As was pointed out above, the missing time is just a big blank spot in the memory - many of the patients aren’t even aware they’re suffering from amnesia until they attempt to remember an event - they don’t know they can’t remember until they try.

I researched this for a story I wrote on www.full-house.org , a more accurate portrayal of the series finale, so I know a fair amount.

First, amnesia often happens after concussions/head injruries. The most common kind of the “bell rung” kind where the football player, let’s say, is out for a moment or at least knocked woozy and gives strange answers to questions from the trainer, like saying he’s in the wrong city, not getting his name right (remember the ad where the player says “I am Batman”?) Then, whether he comes back in that game or not, he doesn’t remember playing in the game or at least in that part of the game later, as Foamfighter says.

While the person has amnesia, they can be perfectly fine on something called the “Glasgow Coma Scale” (sorry no link right handy), though the player in the above is down a couple notches on a few things. The person can have one of two types - short term memory from afterward (like a person with Alzheimers might have, where they can’t recall things that happened after the accident very well) or the type where they can’t remember their past lives.

It can last forever - an Olympic skier suffered a very serious head injury and lost the last 10 years of his life, though he is rather healthy now he still can’t get his memory jogged by anything. However, most people do “snap out of it” in one of two ways. They either have it come back on its own after a few hours or days, as one patient on ER had after a truck accident, or they have their memory jogged by familiar things after a while - feelings, sensations, etc. will tend to come back first.

Sometimes the person is completely back to normal after an hour or two, sometimes it takes days or even weeks, during which time the brain will cause that person to sort of cling to one person they feel they can trust - again, the feelings come before specific memories - for support.

Hope this helps.

I had severe retrograde amnesia for several hours after slipping and cracking my skull on inch-thick ice. At first, I couldn’t speak. Then I could count to 10 and get to about J in the alphabet. Couldn’t add or do simple math. Couldn’t rememebr any of three brothers.

Soon I could do simple math and rememebr my older brother, but not my younger ones. Later I got everything back. Felt like coming out of anesthesia. Disorienting. Head hurt like a bitch too.

The guy in Memento had severe anterograde amnesia, very much like Korsakoff’s Syndrome that FoamFighter mentioned.

What can cause amnesia? Certain drugs. Head trauama. Brain damage from disease or injury. Severe psychological stress.

It can last forever. Depends on what caused it.

People can “snap out of it,” but memory generally returns gradually – again it depends on what caused it.

Anyway, the kind of dissociative amnesia you mentioned (“If you were a cranky sad guy, could you be happy after forgetting everything?”) is rare, but does happen, most frequently in response to a severe psychological trauma. A person could forget their identity, personal troubles and life before a certain point and basically start from scratch emotionally… Kinda. They’d be saddled with a whole new problem set stemming from their loss of identity.

I can’t find the story online at the moment, but a man in California (I think it was) sought police help a few years back after waking up in a ditch and having no clue who he was. A few weeks later the cops tracked down his family in Canada. On being reunited, he still didn’t remember any of them.

When I was about 6 years old I crashed my Schwinn pretty good. Broke one of my teeth, banged up my head and my knee. I have no recollection of the event. In fact, I have no recollection of several days surrounding the event. I just remember “waking up” in my pajamas. I thought it was time to get up. But my brothers told me that it was time to go to bed. To be clear, I was not in bed or unconcious, and never went to the hospital (my parents were cheap and anyway my Grandmother was watching us at the time of the “accident”). According to my brother I was racing my bike against another kid on our gravel road and he sideswiped me and sent me head first into a culvert. A few days later my brain just sort of switched on again, although to everyone else I was apparently functioning as normal. My guess is that some sort of concussion was involved. So I think that’s some sort of amnesia but I’m not exactly sure which. In answer to the OP it was kind of like nothing, or as was snarkily said above, “I don’t remember”.

ShibbOleth, sounds a lot like that horse-riding accident I alluded to in what I wrote.

Here is that glasgow coma scale I referred to, BTW. http://www.trauma.org/scores/gcs.html

One minute, ladies and gentlemen! –golf clap–


I got hit by a car once. My memory was erased from about ten minutes before the concussion until I woke up in the hospital. My parents said I was talking the whole time. It’s still gone, 28 years later.

Another childhood bike crash victim (kinda wish we had helmet laws back then…): I remember going off a jump on my Huffy dirt bike. Next thing I remember is walking home with my friends, with blood and dirt in my mouth. I was talking to them the whole time, was coherent, and seemed to be making sense to myself, too. Then I can’t remember anything again for most of the walk home, and next remember walking into the house and my mom totally freaking out. It was quite strange, in retrospect–it’s as if I had no memory loss at the time (for I talked normally, was aware of what had happened, etc.)–as if someone were taping a movie of my life and just edited out those two sections.

I don’t know if this counts as true amnesia, but I cannot remember a single event of the summer after my mother died. That was over 10 years ago. It’s just gone.

What used to be called “shell shock” happened to many soldiers. Now they call it “post-traumatic syndrome.” Basically they went through such horrible experiences that their minds simply blanked out from a certain point onward, or for a particular period of time.

Um… Let’s see if I can remember how they told me…

I was in ninth grade and in speech class. I had some family issues regarding custody and things like that, but the point is I had great emotional stress. I went to IBCA (Introduction to Business and Computer Applications) class and my vision started going blurry. I told my friend and she brought me to the nurse. The whole way down, I was stumbling and my words started slurring. My stepmom came to get me from school and I laid across the backseat, just staring at the seat. She asked if anything else was hurting and I answered that my stomach was. Later, as she was taking me into the hospital, I had commented that “This is what I think it would feel like being drunk.”, that being the first thing I had said that was a full sentence. Eventually the doctors determined that it was either a panic attack or it had something to do with the emotional stress. But to this day I don’t remember anything from speech to the hospital. All I remember is waking up in the hospital bed and wondering how I had gotten there.

This may be a form of amnesia, but I’m not sure. If it is then the answer to your question: To me, amnesia is kind of like sleep. You blank out at one point, feeling as if no time had passed, but you wake up at a completely different point in time.

During electro-shock treatment, you forget everything, and you’re happy after forgetting everything.

Which sort of supports the obvious idea that if you could forget all those dark thoughts, you’d be happy again.

But modern electro-shock therapy causes much less amnesia, and still makes you happy again, which suggests that the simplistic theory was incorrect.

I’m not aware of research results testing the opposite/direct effect: are you still depressed during amnesia without ES treatment? I don’t know how they could safely create amnesia with out a full brain-reset.

(comments invited)

In certain medical procedures like a colonoscopy you are given a dug, typically Versed, which leaves you conscious during the procedure but usually leaves you with no memory of the procedure afterwards – usually, it can vary from person to person. I had no memory of my first colonoscopy up to the point of being half way home. For the second one I can recall a bit in the recovery room. There is no distinction in my memory between these episodes and being fully sedated for surgery.

I had an almost identical experience. I rode my bike off a curb, and the impact drove the fork down against the front tire, locking the front wheel. I remembered seeing the street as I was going off the curb, then I remember a brief flash of looking up and seeing aghast faces of some other kids (it was just after school, on the school grounds rush hour), and then being driven to a doctor’s office by a teacher. I took three stitches in a severely bleeding chin, but no other injuries. There must have been several minutes there, maybe five, in which I remembered nothing. I didn’t even have the memory a few minutes later, it was already gone.