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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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Memory Loss and Memento

Yinnette Sano

Memento is a contemporary movie which brings to the forefront a moderately popular Hollywood subject, amnesia, or in this case more specifically, short term memory loss. The movie is both quite fascinating as well as confusing as it puts one in the shoes of the main character, Leonard, who suffers from a neurological impairment as a result of an accident. Leonard is out to get revenge for his wife's rape and murder, but his condition makes this task almost impossible. The viewer is made to look at the movie as the main character sees the world; through snippets of information gathered by him on post it notes, tattoos on his body, as well as through Polaroid shots he takes of people and places so as to "remember" who they are. This movie presents Leo as person who is not able to retain any short memories whatsoever. He is, however, able to remember his past very vividly and believes that he can survive only on the basis of instinct and if he conditions himself. After viewing the movie I decided to do some web research to see how accurate the film was in terms of describing Leonard's condition and if there had in fact been some scientific investigations in this particular area.

Memento actually does perpetuate some of the myths about amnesia and short term memory loss. The character repeatedly states to everyone he meets that he knows who he is because he does not have amnesia, and this is an incorrect usage of the term, since the word "amnesia" means loss of memory not loss of identity (1) .There are many types of amnesia because memory formation and brain function are complex. For example, memory can be divided into: Immediate — recalling information for a few seconds after learning it; Short-term — recently learned information that can be recalled minutes or more after presentation; and, Long-term—remote memory of events occurring long months or years ago. One's identity however, is among the most durable long-term memories, therefore, forgetting who you are is rare, especially without other significant neurological and/or psychiatric illness(2). Leonard suffers from what is known as anterograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia is a selective memory deficit resulting from brain injury in which the individual is severely impaired in learning new information. Memories for events that occurred before the injury may be largely spared, but events that occurred since the injury may be lost (1). This fact is clearly depicted in the movie as he forgets conversations and people he has encountered, sometimes doing something and then forgetting mid-way why he is doing it. This disorder can come as a result of damage to parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and the areas which are connected with it in the medial temporal lobes. This damage can arise from numerous things that affect thousands of people. Things such as strokes, brain aneurysms, epilepsy, encephalitis, hypoxia, Alzheimer's disease, and various other complications may have an effect on this area of the brain and can leave the person who has suffered any of these with Anterograde amnesia. In the movie Leonard is able to remember the incident that caused his condition. In reality, the person seldom remembers the incident that actually put him/her into that situation.

In terms of actual research done on people with this disorder, there is a well known case of a patient known as HM in the late 1950's. This man suffered from difficult epileptic seizures which originated in the medial temporal lobes of his brain. In order to stop these seizures doctors opted to remove the parts of his medial temporal lobes where the seizures were originating. Inthe process HM lost almost two thirds of his hippocampus which, as stated above, are critical in the formation of new memories. However, one form of memory left intact in both Patient HM and Leonard in the movie is the ability to learn skills. Called procedural memory, it is what allows us to learn how to do things such as ride a bike or play an instrument. "By performing sets of actions (procedures), the brain forms a kind of unconscious memory of the skills that you 'just know how to do (2). '" The areas of the brain outside the medial-temporal lobes are involved in procedural memory, which is why an injury that results in anterograde amnesia doesn't affect procedural memory (3). . Procedural memory is central to a subplot in Memento.As the movie progresses Leonard has flash backs to when he himself was an insurance investigator and was carrying out a case on a man claiming amnesia. Leonard wanted to make sure the man was not "faking" his memory disorder so as to claim benefits from the insurance company. In the movie the man, Sammy, undergoes a test several times in which he receives a small electrical shock when he picks up a block of a certain shape. In the film, Sammy again and again picks up the electrified block, so as to tell us that his mind does not respond to what Leonard calls "conditioning", something which he thinks he has mastered (2). . However regardless of Sammy being unable to recreate short memories of the past testing he should be able to not pick up the electrified shape based upon some instinct within him some feeling that is generated from within that has nothing to do with the hippocampus or that part of the brain.

The people who make up our society in many ways look to the media as their source of accurate knowledge. In this particular case Hollywood was able to get it "less wrong" as far as portraying the very real and very serious condition of complete short term memory loss. I think that movie also did a pretty good job in portraying a different reality, one that comes along with living without a short term memory and how confusing, frustrating, and just sad it can be. However, it did fail to acknowledge the fact that although a part of our brain may not be functioning "correctly" for whatever reason; there are other systems within us that may allow us to make the everyday distinctions so as to be able to continue living. I think that many times we tend to forget how important our instincts and inherent human characteristics are especially when the body/brain has to make up for the lack of a function. The past couple of classes have dealt with perceptions of reality and how what we "see is not always not what you get", in this case not seeing, or forgetting, in a sense equals a different perception of reality.

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