Character Medical Advice: Amnesia

Reading time ~5 minutes

Your character wakes up in a hospital, machines beeping, bright lights, but where are they? WHO are they? And who can they really trust? As time goes on, bits of memory flit through their mind. Confusing flashes that are frustrating, disorienting, and scary.

Like Concussions, amnesia is a favorite tool for writers. It makes sense; it’s a great way to spur conflict, create a quest or journey, and help us get to know the character, as they re-learn about themselves. But, how does amnesia actually work?

alt text Most Common Causes of Amnesia:

  • Brain damage: your character may suffer a head injury, heart attack, or a stroke. Anything that causes brain damage can cause amnesia. They may not remember how they hurt themselves or the memory loss can span much further.

  • Emotional Trauma:
    Amnesia is fairly common surrounding trauma. It’s a protective mechanism, a form of dissociative amnesia. This condition can be persistent. Meaning, even when your character is rescued, they may still wander around in a fog, and have no recollection of doing so when they “come to.”

Wanda is kidnapped. When she’s found, several weeks, months, or even years later, she can’t remember what happened. She doesn’t know who took her. When she returns home, her parents frequently find Wanda wandering the house with a vague expression. They speak to her, but she doesn’t respond. Eventually, she appears to wake from her fog, confused about how she got to the kitchen and with no memory of wondering.

  • Disease Processes: You are writing about a character with dementia, and they are losing their memory. It starts with the most recent memories, working back further as the disease progresses (called retrograde amnesia).

Betty starts forgetting to turn the stove off, leaves the tap running, and can’t remember the name of her new neighbor. Soon, she starts referring to her granddaughter as her daughter, gets lost coming home from the grocery store, and gets ready for work in the morning–despite being retired for 15 years.

  • Drugs Alcohol and certain medications can cause anterograde amnesia. This means that your character isn’t forming new memories; their brain isn’t recording what’s going on. The effect is temporary and wears off as the substance leaves the system.

Dillan is at a party and has too much to drink. The next day his friends tell him he ran through the party naked before passing out on the pool table. He has no memory of the party after doing shots with the captain of the football team.

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  • MAGIC! If you write fantasy, you have a plethora of options via magic. Potions, spells, plants, ancient fairy magic, vengeful spirits, whatever your style; you do you! Obviously, in this genre, you’re not bound to the same medical constraints; magic can work in different ways than actual amnesia. If you want to keep things similar to real-world amnesia, consider modeling the amnesia after a type listed above (eg. the amnesia mimics that of drugs or a head trauma).

What can be done? There is no sure-fire way to cure amnesia. In some cases, time is all that’s needed–like with mild head injuries and drugs. For traumatic amnesia, therapy or even hypnosis can help unlock repressed memories. For disease processes, occupational therapy and medications can help slow the progress, but there is no known cure. In some situations, memories can be stirred by the familiar.

Thomas has no memory of his childhood, that is, until he goes to his grandmother’s house for the first time since he was a kid. The smells that hit him when he enters the kitchen stir something, almost like deja vu. He walks through the house, and the feeling intensifies. Seeing his old bedroom brings on flashbacks of his grandfather holding a belt.

If you’re writing fantasy, the character may need to go on a quest to undo the magic, sacrifice something, find another wizard, lick a frog… whatever your imagination concocts.

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Will my character forget everything?

In short, probably not. Deep-seated memories, like how to talk, walk, eat, are unlikely to be affected. These can be impacted by brain damage, but not likely from amnesia (although, with dissociative amnesia, your character might temporarily be in a trance-like state where they do not talk, eat, etc.)

If your character has been working as a nurse for 20 years, they are unlikely to lose those skills. If they are a nursing student, just learning, then sure, they will forget some of those new skills.

New acquaintances may be forgotten, but lifetime friendships will probably be remembered (unless specifically related to the trauma they are suppressing). Of course, there are ALWAYS exceptions, but in general, more recently acquired memories are most at risk for amnesia. In the cause of degenerative disease processes, like dementia, no memories are safe forever. The disease will take them all, given enough time.

Well, on that bright note, I’ll turn things over to you guys! Have any questions about amnesia?

Today’s topic was suggested by Tori on Twitter. Thanks for the awesome idea, Tori! If you have any character medical questions, I’d love to hear about them in the comments, or on Facebook/Twitter


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