Amnesia … more than just memory loss

Amnesia is more than memory loss plain and simple

Amnesia means more than just memory
loss – it’s almost like losing your identity

Amnesia must be one of the best known of all medical terms. Anyone who’s ever heard about memory loss and memory loss problems is familiar with the term. Mostly we think of the term ‘amnesia‘ as covering all there is to know about memory loss.

In fact, there’s more to amnesia than that. Amnesia is a term that covers several different types of situations involving loss of memory (whether that’s temporary, permanent, partial, specific, or whatever) and memory loss in general.

Our concept of amnesia

For many of us, our concept of amnesia comes from what we’ve seen in movies. The main character wakes up in a strange situation, not knowing even his own name, and much of the rest of the film is taken up by his search for his identity, and his struggle to resolve the traumatic situation that resulted in his memory loss. It makes a good story (one reason the scenario has been re-used so many times!), but there’s more to amnesia than simply a total memory loss.

Causes of amnesia

When you’re thinking about memory loss, the first question to ask is what is the cause of the amnesia. A common cause of memory loss is physical trauma, such as a blow to the head. This can result in a disruption in the normal functioning of the memory, so that new memories (at least temporarily) are not formed properly, or consolidated.

This is the reason we often don’t remember what happened just before the trauma (the accident, or whatever) – the brain simply didn’t have time to properly form memories of events that occurred in that short time frame, or to consolidate them as it normally would.

Retrograde amnesia and anterograde amnesia

Retrograde amnesia is a term that describes a situation where the person cannot recall events that happened before the trauma. They can still form new memories successfully, but the period before the trauma is, in effect, wiped clean. This certainly isn’t as common as we might assume from watching films, but it can be caused by, for example, a head injury.

Anterograde amnesia, on the other hand, describes a form of memory loss where the subject cannot create new memories. This can be due to any of a number of causes, such as …

  • head trauma
  • surgery
  • alcoholism
  • malnutrition
  • anorexia
  • stroke

Any of these can cause damage to the brain, and can result in loss of memory. Poor diet can obviously affect the health of the brain, just as it can affect the entire body, and long-term alcohol abuse can cause memory loss, in this case known as Korsakoff’s Syndrome. This is caused specifically by a vitamin B1 deficiency, and is progressive as long as the drinking continues (of course, drinking problems often go hand in hand with poor diet).

Obviously, a stroke, which results from a brain aneurym, can cause some damage to the brain tissues, with memory loss a possible result.

Non-physical causes of amnesia

There can also be non-physical causes. If a person is under extreme stress, for example, that can cause the memory to malfunction. Also among the various non-physical causes of amnesia is post-traumatic stress. Typically this might happen when a situation causes such distress that the mind simply doesn’t want to recall the event, or anything leading up to it. Child victims of sexual abuse often don’t recall the abuse, until (in some cases) something triggers the repressed memories to rise once more to the surface.

There is a type of amnesia known as childhood amnesia, in which the subject cannot recall events from their childhood. This causes many people to worry unnecessarily, since Freud notoriously attributed this to sexual repression, whereas modern thought puts this down to the normal processes of brain development that can sometimes cause the memory to malfunction.

The memory is such an intriguing faculty, and one which is easily damaged or disturbed, and yet for most of us amnesia remains merely a fascinating plot feature of the big screen. Most of us never suffer amnesia (or at least amnesia that lasts very long), and we should be grateful for that. To lose one’s memory is to lose more than just a record of facts and events.

Your memory is a vital component of your personality, and to suffer severe and lasting amnesia is a fate not to be taken lightly. It’s almost equal to losing one’s indentity.


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