Amnesia and Repressed Memory: Great Plot Ideas, Bad Science


I remember how disappointed I was when I researched amnesia for a story in my teens. It turns out that soap opera amnesia--character gets into an accident, comes back with no memory of the past yet continues to function normally--doesn't happen. People who do suffer extreme amnesia always have accompanying physiological symptoms: headaches, continual memory lapses, trauma in the muscles, strokes, etc. etc. etc.

In other words, a person who continues to suffer from amnesia will be visibly lacking in functionality (i.e., people will say, "Hey, what's wrong with you?!").

People can undergo temporary fugue states--rather like driving to a location without being fully cognizant of having done so. In this case, the "amnesia" is temporary and the person cannot perform complex critical thinking (the body takes over, not the mind).

Functionality is why I don't believe Agatha Christie suffered amnesia when she disappeared in 1926. I think she was suffering immense psychological distress and didn't much care what happened to her. But I don't believe that she could have checked herself into a hotel, participated in conversations with fellow guests, and deliberately changed her name to that of her husband's mistress while undergoing a fugue state. It makes for a great plot! It doesn't make sense reality-wise.

Amnesia is a great plot idea (although believing that Christie did what she did without amnesia is rather more interesting): The prince who doesn't realize he is a prince. The woman who doesn't realize her husband is her cousin (yikes!). The detective who misses his own wedding and doesn't know why (Castle).

But it's not credible. (Castle was pumped full of drugs to make his amnesia plausible.)

Repressed Memory

I consider the False Memory cases of the 1980s and 1990s to be the most chilling example of "Chicken Little" syndrome (panic ruining people's lives) in American history. Luckily, Elizabeth Loftus and other psychologists/scientists effectively showed--both then and now--that memory doesn't work the way repressed memory advocates maintained.

What amazes me is that anyone had to prove the uncertainty of memory. In the 1950s, Mary McCarthy wrote about an incident from her childhood and then talked about discussing that incident with her siblings who didn't remember it the same as she (if I remember correctly, one brother didn't remember the incident at all).

When I took a memoir writing class in college for my B.A., we discussed this: how tricky memory is; how, even when we do remember (or think we remember) things correctly, we exaggerate or fictionalize them for effect. I'm sure that Paul H. Dunn had no intention of lying--aren't dying declarations always more exciting!?

As Ceser Millan explains: dogs, like children, react based
on what they sense--not to what they should do logically.
So memories can be unreliable. Doesn't everybody know that?

In addition, doesn't everybody know that children may lie and exaggerate without any deliberate intention at dishonesty? Children are like dogs--they can sense what adults want to hear and offer it up on a platter.

I have first-hand experience with this; around second grade, I developed slow-reading habits. They were almost entirely psychological--I suffered from a bit of OCD and would read passages over and over (I started reading relatively late; late readers often suffer from some type of difficulty; these readers often become voracious readers as they age, as I did).

My teacher advised my mom to take me for testing at an outside tutoring place. I *sensed* why I was there and deliberately read slowly in order to give the testers the same results as my teacher had been getting; in my confused little brain, I thought I was being honest.

Despite reading slowly, I believe I still got all the reading comprehension questions right. When the testers tried to convince my mom that I needed help anyway, she was seriously unimpressed by their sales pitch. She sent me instead to the elementary school's special education teacher. At this point, I was getting nervous. It had never occurred to me that producing the same results would actually result in me having to attend extra classes, a fate worse than death. (Besides which, "special education" had a stigma.) So I set aside my nervous ticks and speed read everything put in front of me.

I got the impression at the time--and even now, looking back--that the special education teacher, while not knowing exactly what was going on, had a pretty good idea that the issue had nothing to do with my academic abilities. She seemed to find me amusing more than anything else.

So here's a woman who worked with kids day in, day out and consequently understood (1) that kids' behavior and memory is something of a crap shoot and (2) trying to deduce causation and induce life-altering social changes from a kid's behavior and memory is problematic in the extreme.

Unfortunately, Olivet--a great Law & Order character--
touts the then popular repressed memory drek in this
early Law & Order episode. It's a well-written episode!
In real life, the father should never have been convicted.
But a bunch of so-called child psychologists in the 1980s and 1990s failed to form the same conclusions. They were on a "SAVE THE CHILDREN" bandwagon and threw commonsense straight out the window (besides which, recovering repressed memory was--and is--so much more dramatic than helping people through standard therapy, which is frankly rather plodding and dull, even when productive).

Repressed memory makes for great plots. One doesn't have to look any further than Spellbound (which contains both amnesia and repressed memory!) to appreciate its fictional potential. It makes for lousy morality in real life.


  1. Kate,

    The mind is funny. The other night I dreamed I was flying an ultralight aircraft. I woke up and knew what I had just imagined was a dream. Yet I retained in my mind the idea that I used to regularly fly such aircraft. I spent several minutes forcing myself to be rational and to convince myself that this was not the case - for example while I "believed" I used to fly around the neighborhood in an ultralight I had no memory of owning one and no evidence of having such equipment at my house!

  2. Dan, I know the experience. Usually, in the morning I have to take time to sort out the difference between reality and dream. I once sat in the shower mourning my dead sister before realizing I have a brother who is alive and well!

  3. Slight tangent: The experience of "alien abductions" can be explained by sleep paralysis: when we sleep, our brains freeze our bodies, so we won't sleep-walk. Occasionally, a person's brain will wake up before the body unfreezes. The result is a heavy feeling on the chest (as if something was sitting on it) and a sense that something or someone is in the room.

    I have experienced sleep paralysis twice in my life. It is wholly terrifying. Although I didn't think I was being kidnapped by aliens, I couldn't calm down enough to think rationally or force my body to unfreeze; instead, I told myself rather desperately to go back to sleep. I did and woke up normally.

    Our brains really do work overtime to make sense of the world! Even if the "sense" is strange indeed.