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Amnesia: Eternal Sunshine?

February 28, 2013
Brain falling apart into sky - an artwork by Heidi Cartwright.

Brain falling apart into sky – an artwork by Heidi Cartwright

Amnesia is a favourite trope of film-makers and screen-writers alike. It’s been used as a plot device in thrillers, in soap operas as a dramatic twist in a storyline, and in science fiction films, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here Nancy Wilkinson, a writer for the Wellcome Trust, explores some of the real-life stories behind this often mysterious condition.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 Oscar winning film based around the possibility of erasing choice memories. It will be showing at the Barbican this Saturday as part of Wonder on Film– a series of screenings, between the 2 March and 10 April, of films themed around the brain and neuroscience. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will be the first.

To mark the occasion, I decided to investigate some real-life cases of amnesia, to try and discover what it’s really like to find yourself forgetting your own past.

The text-book case

Actual accounts of amnesia are few and far between, some better documented than others. Arguably the most famous case is that of Henry Molaison, or Patient HM, who suffered severe amnesia after an experimental operation on his brain to cure him of epileptic seizures in 1953.

A neurosurgeon removed a portion of Henry’s brain in an attempt to stop his debilitating seizures, but the procedure was performed before much was known about the functions of different areas of the brain. The neurosurgeon removed parts of the hippocampus and amyglada, now known now to have an important role in memory formation.

The operation left Molaison with severe anterograde amnesia – he lost the ability to form new memories. He also permanently forgot most of his past, other than a few key events, like the stock market crash of 1929, and World War II. He spent the remainder of his life being studied by researchers, and is recognised as one of the most important patients in the history of neuroscience. Much of what we know today about the areas of our brain responsible for memory, comes from these early studies of Patient H.M.

The music man

A more recent case of severe amnesia is that of pianist and musicologist, Clive Wearing, who lost much of his memory, and ability to form new memories, in 1985 after an infection damaged his brain. The infection, herpesviral encephalitis, or the cold sore virus, very rarely travels into the brain, but once it does it can quickly cause irreparable damage. In Clive’s case, to his hippocampus.

Like Patient HM, Clive cannot form new memories, or remember much of his life before 1985. After the infection he remembered his wife, Deborah, and that he had two children from a previous marriage, but could not remember either of their names. He began a journal to help him recall day-to-day activities, but it consisted only of similar statements, written again and again. He would enter things such as ‘Now I am really awake’, and then cross it out the next time he came to write in his journal, forgetting he had written it at all. If his wife leaves his side for just a few minutes, when she returns he reacts as if she has been gone for days.

Remarkably, though, he never lost the ability to play the piano, even though he has no recollection of being able to. And he has never stopped loving his wife.

The missing people

Every so often a news story will announce that someone has been found, suffering from amnesia, weeks, months, or even years after going missing. Almost a year after 9/11, George V Sims was found in a US hospital. He had no recollection of his wife or daughter, who could only be identified because of a photo found by the police. He was diagnosed with amnesia and schizophrenia soon after.

Much earlier, in 1926, a man reappeared after going missing during World War I. In this case, his reappearance marked the beginning of a long and mysterious investigation into his identity. He was named as Professor Giulio Canella, a philosophy scholar, by Canella’s wife, and diagnosed with amnesia. But a few days later his identity was called into question.

An anonymous source claimed he was Mario Bruneri, a criminal wanted by police. There followed an extensive inquiry and several trials, leading eventually to a court ruling that he was in fact Bruneri. Incredibly, Canella’s wife couldn’t accept this, and fought for the court ruling to be over turned. It never was, and Bruneri died in Brazil in 1941. The full story remains unclear: was Bruneri suffering from amnesia, or did he just feign the condition in attempt to evade the law?

It is impossible to truly imagine what it feels like to have amnesia, which is possibly why it features so heavily in films and stories. Clive Wearing’s wife, Deborah, tried to imagine what it was like in her memoirs, Forever Today: “Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view… Something akin to a film with bad continuity… But this was real life”.

‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is playing as part of the Wonder season at the Barbican on 2 March at 15.00. For more information about the series, visit the Wonder on Film website.

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