Amnesia in the movies

Despite occuring only rarely, amnesia (or memory loss) has featured often in Hollywood films for almost a century. By 1926, at least 10 silent films which used amnesia as a plot device had been made; more recent productions, such as 50 First Dates and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are therefore part of a well established tradition.

In a review published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale of the Institute of Neurology in London points out that cinematic depictions of amnesia are consistenly inaccurate, and usually “bear no relation whatsoever to any authentic neurological or psychiatric condition”.

In her review, Baxendale examines common misconceptions of amnesia found in the cinema, and suggests that knowledge of them can guide clinicians when informing patients and their relatives about diagnoses. She also points out several exceptional films which depict amnesic syndromes accurately.

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Researchers from the Computational Neuroimaging Laboratory at New York University recently carried out a study of the effects of films on viewers’ brains.

Hasson et al scanned the brains of 45 participants whilst they watched scenes from a number of films and television programmes. Not surprisingly, they found that all the scenes activated numerous and diffuse regions of the cerebral cortex – visual areas in the occipital lobes, auditory and language centres in the temporal lobes, and so on.

The data obtained were then subjected to a newly-developed statistical method called inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis, which is designed to measure the similarities in the responses of all the participants. Thus, the first 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly produced an ISC score of 45%, while Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm scored 18%. The study also provides some evidence that Alfred Hitchcock really is the master of suspense – his 1961 film Bang! You’re Dead gave a score of 65%:

The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions, turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuroscientific evidence for his notoriously famous ability to master and manipulate viewers’ minds. Hitchcock often liked to tell interviewers that for him “creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions”.

The researchers suggest that the inter-subject analyses they performed give an indication of the effectiveness of a given cinematographic technique in engaging the viewer, and suggest that their findings can therefore inform filmmakers. They also hope that the study will initiate the new interdisciplinary field of “neurocinematics”.

Hasson, et al. (2008). Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film. Projections 2: 1-26. [PDF]