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What is amnesia?

Childhood amnesia, was Freud right?

Amnesia is a term used to cover the partial or complete loss of memory. It's usually associated with either physical trauma such as a blow to the head or some sort of psychological trauma. It is usually a temporary condition and tends to affect only a certain part of a person's experience. Amnesia can also be caused by specific medical conditions such as a brain tumour, a stroke or a swelling of the brain. Memory loss can also be experienced by those suffering the effects of chronic alcohol abuse.

There are several definitions of amnesia depending on the type experienced.

Anterograde amnesia: People who find it hard to remember ongoing events after suffering damage to the head. They do not tend to forget their childhood or who they are, but have trouble remembering day-to-day events.

Retrograde amnesia: People who find it hard to retrieve memories prior to an incident in which they suffer damage to the head. Sometimes people never remember the seconds leading up to the incident.

Traumatic amnesia: This follows brain damage caused by a severe non-penetrative blow to the head, such as in a road accident. It can lead to anything from a loss of consciousness for a few seconds to coma.

Infantile/childhood amnesia: This refers to a person's inability to recall events from early childhood. Many of us have sketchy memories of our childhood whilst other claim to have distinct memories of being a baby. Childhood amnesia is a controversial topics and touches on areas in psychology that are the subject of heated debate. There's a separate page on childhood amnesia on this site.

The great psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, theorized that childhood amnesia occurs when a young mind blocks out unsuitable impressions or emotional trauma, something universal to all of us. Today, that view is seen as highly contentious by most scientists. Yet childhood amnesia remains somewhat of a paradox: infants' and young children's minds handle a lot of new impressions and are adept at learning, but it seems that before they can lay down long term memories, their brains need to undergo some sort of developmental change.

There's also the issue of what's called hysterical amnesia which again harks back to Freud's controversial theories. This covers episodes of amnesia linked to psychological trauma. It is usually temporary and can be triggered by a traumatic event with which the mind finds it difficult to deal. Usually, the memory slowly or suddenly comes back a few days later, although memory of the trauma may remain incomplete.

YOUR COMMENT

Barbara Dalton
My husband has been an amnesic since the age of 24 after surgery for a subdural haemorrhage in 1980. Accepting his loss of memory was very traumatic for several years despite much medical and pyschological help. However, we have gone on to bring up three children for whom my husband has been the main carer. We encounter practical problems every single day despite many stategies, but his life is very full, busy and, I hope, has been very rewarding.

Mary
I suffered severe memory loss after a prolonged course of ECT in 1965.Doctors kept saying I was suppressing my own memory. This continued for 15 frightening years until I had a brain scan,which showed a mini stroke in the area of the brain that deals with memory! From then on I found ways of coping despite living on my own. Recently some help has become available. It is so much easier to cope when a proper diagnosis is made. Now old age is kicking in but at least I have the strategies in place which makes it easier to keep going.

MikeE
My older sister suffered a stroke nine months ago which hardly affected her physical condition (good for a woman in her mid seventies) but affected her memory badly. She remembers very little of events prior to the stroke and has quite a poor memory for events post. Standing back from my real concerns for her personal loss and mine (she is my only surviving close relative from childhood) I find her condition interesting (I read psychology at university so it immeditely brought back lectures on memory). When meeting her she seems the person we've always known. She is interested and positive. Despite this strong need to appear normal at a superficial social level she has no concern about the health of her family and friends of which the closest to her died recently. She can't be persuaded to send birthday cards to family including to children whom she has been always been generous towards in time and concern for wellbeing even for politeness sake and despite having the ability to do so. However she is happier and more emotionally level than before. She often laments her memory loss and its everyday real effects almost as someone outside it. She seem to relate to me well but not my family (all very close before). Her attitude to me could be a sham but I don't think so. It may be due to her being involved with my upbringing as a baby and as a child (she is sixteen years older than me so was very much involved as a young woman). However I would have thought memories of her husband, with whom she was very close, would have made the same or greater impact on her cognitive and emotional memories. Many of the changes to her personality can be understood in terms of the stroke. Two aspects of it however I can't quite reconcile. The contrast between the social veneer of interest and politeness and her calm lack of concern for those to whom she has always been very close. And the strange junxtaposition of her happy and level demeanour despite her very real awareness of the personal loss due to impaired memory. One feels a loss like in a death and of course it makes you reflect on how complex the workings of the brain are and how vital a part memory plays in the whole system.

Bruce
In an attempt to explain memory loss I was wondering if some ECT treatment I had some 20 years ago (which I CAN remember having!)in psychiatric hospital could have anything to do with it.

Yuanbuo This (Mr)
I sustained a severe traumatic head injury in March 1988 when I was 24. Despite doctors' progognosis for my waking up out of my coma and re-establish life again, was 3 percent, my parents decided to give me that chance anyway. It was my ABILITY TO MAKE ASSOCIATIONS (mental associations through my abilities of speaking five languages (Chinese, German, Dutch, English and then French) as well as my abilities for linking my PhD level scientific research in Molecular Biology, with my abilities for the Visual arts and music, all helped me. Because I loved mysic so much, during my coma my parents played me recording of their speech and pieces of the classical music I loved. My mother also gave me Shiatsu massage, whose touch must have kept me grounded. When I awoke from my coma, my memory was terrible. But because my visual memory was best, I started to learn to associate many thought memories with (funny) images and or long stories. These helped me a lot. Cheers, Yuanbuo This

Rami (website team)
Shared Amnesia - that's fascinating. There is limited research, published this year infact, which shows that people who suffer from amnesia and are unable to acquire new memories seem to be able to do so using a partner to help them learn. So perhaps the reverse is true and that knowledged acquired together can infact be lost when the partnership is broken. We'd be interested in contacting you about this if you want. Please email: memoryexperience@bbc.co.uk Thanks

Bammo
Shared memory amnesia? : When my wife died after 5 years of ovarian cancer one of the most unusual consequences seemed to be a form of amnesia in that as a partnership one tended to prompt one another about shared memories and information. When suddenly back to being a single person these prompts are missing, one knows the data is there but cannot be retrieved because the prompt is missing. As time has gone on this strange effect has reduced, but initially was quite disturbing. Effectively my experience has been that partners to some degree tend to think as one entity, if one partner has not all the retreval of a memory the other partner bolsters up the other.

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