Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Mystery of Agatha’s Amnesia

By Tim Hannan

A popular fictional theme, psychogenic amnesia is a possible consequence of stress or trauma.

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A sudden attack of amnesia for one’s own identity has been popular grist for the Hollywood mill, with films such as Total Recall, X-Men and the Jason Bourne series all revolving around the protagonists’ inability to recall much of their personal histories. Indeed, the number of movies about this unusual type of amnesia has exceeded the count of well-documented cases in the psychological literature, and its apparent rarity and inexplicability has led to suspicions that sufferers were fabricating their symptoms – as happened to the crime novelist Agatha Christie in 1926. A new review in the journal Brain has identified more than 50 cases in a 20-year period at one London hospital, suggesting that this form of amnesia may not be quite as rare as previously thought.

Amnesia is most commonly observed after a neurological illness or injury, or as a consequence of the onset of dementia. In such cases, the person loses the ability to lay down new memories (anterograde amnesia) and struggles to recall certain memories from before the onset of the condition (retrograde amnesia). Usually, the amnesia for past events relates to specific facts or details, and is more prominent for recent events rather than long-held and well-learned facts. The neural damage is typically located in the medial temporal lobes, including the hippocampus.

In contrast to these “organic” forms...

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