Introduction: The Mystery of Memory Loss

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Introduction: The Mystery of Memory Loss

A man wanders into a restaurant in a very small town. He recognizes nobody. He cannot name the special of the day, and he does not know the waitress who asks if he wants his usual. He looks around, confused, as people wave and say, “Hello, Jim.” Everyone seems to know him, but he cannot remember any of them. He cannot remember his own last name. In fact, he has no memories. No memories at all.

When most people hear the word amnesia, they think of a situation like this: A person has lived through a serious accident or a very scary event, or simply wakes up one morning with no idea who he is, where he is from, or what he did the day before.

In reality, amnesia rarely affects people quite this way. Movies and television shows are to blame for a lot of the confusion. They make amnesia seem like something that happens often and to many people. A great many characters in soap operas, for example, suffer from severe amnesia for a while (some of them even have the condition more than once in their life). When they recover, their lost memories flood in. They remember all the people they have loved. It is a happy time for everyone, and life goes back to normal.

This is a far different story than most cases of real-life amnesia. Although the word amnesia means a loss of memory, most people who have the condition do not lose all of their past memories for just a short while, then suddenly get them back again and go on to live a normal life. Amnesia is much more unpredictable. It usually affects only part of a person’s memory—the memory of many years or of just a few months or days or moments. The memory loss itself can last minutes or a lifetime.

Some amnesiacs may lose their memories about how to do things, too. A piano player might forget the notes to favorite songs she knew by heart, or she might forget how to read sheet music altogether. Other people “forget” how to make new memories. Amnesiacs might be able to remember things that happened to them long ago but not be able to remember anything new. Amnesia can also mean a loss of just a person’s short-term memory, so that when a student’s teacher tells him to take out his science book and turn to page ninety-six, he has already forgotten the page number by the time he finds the right book.

Amnesia can even work backwards, erasing the most recent memories first. This is what happens in Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that causes a person to slowly lose his or her most recent memories. After a while, only the memories from childhood remain, as if all the years in between never happened at all.

Amnesia is not a disease, however. It is a condition that can be caused by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It can also be a result of a serious injury to the head, or it can be caused by drug or alcohol abuse. There are even cases of amnesia that seem to be caused by an upsetting event in a person’s life. Whatever the origin, and however amnesia plays out for the person who has it, the loss of memories or of the ability to remember is something scientists are trying to better understand. Amnesia of any type is very complicated, because it happens in the brain—by far the most complex human organ, and the one that scientists know the least about.

Studies of the human brain, how it works, and how memories are made are helping scientists to better understand amnesia. New technology gives doctors and scientists the ability to take pictures of the brain and to draw electrical maps of what is working inside our skulls, and how, and when. Some psychologists and psychiatrists use methods such as hypnosis to try to help people with amnesia remember things that have been forgotten. Doctors are seeking ways to cure or prevent some of the diseases and conditions that can lead to memory loss in the first place.

Science may be getting closer to understanding amnesia, but the people who have it often lead very frustrating and difficult lives, and so do their families and friends. There may be little that anyone can do to find lost memories or remember how to learn again. There are so many types of amnesia and so many ways to lose memories that for most people, there is no cure. The happy endings we see in movies and soap operas do not always come for real-life people with amnesia. They may live out their entire lives missing part or all of their memory. The reality of life with amnesia often means placing hope in science and depending on the patience and understanding of loved ones, even if these are people the person with amnesia no longer remembers.