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Cinema's portrayal of amnesia flawed

Special Correspondent
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Movies often confuse neurological with psychological forms of the condition, says expert

DEBUNKING MYTHS: (From left) C.V. Karthik Narayanan, director, Union Company Motors Ltd.; Michael D. Kopelman, professor of Neuropsychiatry, Kings College, London; and M.S. Swaminathan, president, VHS, at the K. Gopalakrishna Endowment Oration held in Chennai on Sunday. — Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
DEBUNKING MYTHS: (From left) C.V. Karthik Narayanan, director, Union Company Motors Ltd.; Michael D. Kopelman, professor of Neuropsychiatry, Kings College, London; and M.S. Swaminathan, president, VHS, at the K. Gopalakrishna Endowment Oration held in Chennai on Sunday. — Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

In spite of global cinema's interminable fascination for amnesia as a storyline device, the portrayal of the complex condition of memory loss has been a flawed, often misleading and, by and large, forgettable undertaking, Michael D. Kopelman, Professor of Neuropsychiatry, Kings College, London, said on Sunday.

Delivering the 25 {+t} {+h} K. Gopalakrishna Endowment Oration coinciding with the 8 {+t} {+h} International Congress of the International Neuropsychiatry Association, Dr. Kopelman cited research by clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale — and played video and movie clips — to show how films promoted myths about the complex neuro-psychogenic condition of amnesia.

In the oration titled ‘Amnesia: not what you see in the movies', Dr. Kopelman pointed out that Baxendale's review of about 300 films, beginning with the silent era that have dealt with amnesia, found that the movies often confused the neurological with the psychological forms of the condition, assumed that focal retrograde amnesia to be the usual pattern, and even ludicrously suggested that the best treatment for memory loss owing to a head injury was another blow to head.

According to Dr. Kopelman, memory disorders could be categorised as ones with a neurological (or brain) basis and others with a psychological causation, those that are associated with transient memory loss and forms with persistent dysfunction of recall. There was also the distinction between anterograde amnesia, or the impairment in learning new material, and retrograde amnesia, or the erasing of memory relating to events that occurred, or information acquired, before an injury or the onset of a disease.

Dr. Kopelman pointed out that the filter theory of primary and secondary memory — one pertaining to the proximate experience and the other to a distant past — had subsequently led to a broad classification of the amnesic syndrome as the impairment of working, episodic, semantic or implicit memory functions. The variety of causes for amnesia included post-encephalitic brain damage, cerebral hypoxia, stroke and TB meningitis, he said.

Presenting a sample of case studies, Dr. Kopelman went on to explain the manifestations of amnesia — an impairment of secondary memory even while the primary memory remained intact, the effects of organic changes in the brain triggered by alcohol abuse (or the Korsakoff's Syndrome) and the conditions of confabulation and psychogenic fugue (which manifested as global or the situation-specific forms).

M.S. Swaminathan, president, Voluntary Health Services (VHS), hailed the contributions of philanthropic families and corporates in Chennai to the VHS in furthering its founder K. S. Sanjeevi's concept of delivering quality healthcare that was affordable.

M. Sarada Menon, psychiatrist, said the healthcare delivery model evolved by the neurology unit at VHS was remarkable as much for its multi-disciplinary nature and its affordability.

E.S. Krishnamoorthy, Honorary Secretary, VHS, called for a balanced view on forgetfulness — to worry more about those who fail to remember the things they have forgotten than those who can provide a detailed account of the things they have forgotten.

Krishnamoorthy Srinivas, Chairman Emeritus, The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS, presented a plaque to C.V. Karthik Narayanan, Director, Union Company Motors Ltd to mark the 25 {+t} {+h} edition of the orations. Gayathri Sriram, managing director, UCAL Products Ltd; also participated.

The oration was hosted by the K. Gopalkrishna Department of Neurology, The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS and supported by Chatnath Trust.


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