Movie Amnesia

As I move closer to an age where Alzheimer’s disease could be a concern, I find myself paying more attention to signs that I might be slipping.

So far, I seem to be OK. The Cleveland Clinic (2019) assures me that “Simple forgetfulness (the ‘missing keys’) and delay or slowing in recalling names, dates, and events can be part of the normal process of aging.” But the good people at the Cleveland Clinic do think that maybe I should start to worry if I absolutely don’t remember (i.e., more than just delayed recollection) of the names of close friends and family members.

I did have something like that happen once. It was in high school. My girlfriend and I were walking down the hallway. Someone else grabbed me and started to talk to me. The girlfriend kept walking. I wanted to tell her to wait a minute. But for some reason, I suddenly suffered an amnesiac lapse: what the hell is her name? I finally yelled, “Hey – you!” She stopped and gave me the weirdest look.

Funny thing, and I’m sure it’s no connection, but she dumped me a few weeks later. I think that was just because she wanted to date my best friend. I had only just recently introduced him to her. He was cool and played the guitar. The two of them married, and God brought all kinds of pain into their lives. So that worked out pretty well for me.

I’m only kidding. The pain was real, and deep, for both of them, and I have always, honest to God, felt very bad for them. It’s just that I’m the kind of guy who can’t resist telling jokes in the foxhole, at least when I’m not complaining. At least when they are jokes about someone else’s misfortune.

But anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, yes, memory. The Cleveland Clinic also says I should worry if I suddenly lose recollection of conversations, or appointments, or recent events; or if I often misplace items, or repeat the same questions and the same stories; or if I have difficulty understanding written or verbal information. Basically, if you’re getting soft in the noggin, that’s not good. Fortunately, according to the National Institute on Aging (2021), dementia can include not caring about people’s feelings. So the upside may be that you won’t really mind that you’re losing it.

Seriously, for those who really are losing their memories, the thought can be a source of deep anxiety and real grief. A discussion hosted by the Alzheimer’s Society of the UK (2014) provides a glimpse into what that can be like.

To address another of the Cleveland Clinic’s criteria, I do sometimes struggle to recall a word that I want to use. But I’m not sure that’s anything new; sometimes it’s just a word I haven’t used in a long time. Like, what’s the example … struggling to remember, here … deliquescent. No, that wasn’t it. Deleterious. No, it was another de- word. But I don’t remember what it was.

One thing that is apparently not proof of Alzheimer’s is if you have movie amnesia. For an introduction to this concept, we turn to The Velvet Café (Jessica, 2012):

Is there a set limit of how many movies you can keep in your head at the same time? I have a growing suspicion there is. For every new film experience I put in, an old one will dissolve from my memory into oblivion.

The amount of movies I’m able to discuss with any kind of insight and authority is abysmal compared to the number I’ve watched. The vast majority are just gone.

Now, in fairness, it could be that Jessica is a dottty octogenarian who is also having a hard time remembering when she last fed the cats. But I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on this. Because some of my best friends are dotty octogenarians – or at least I assume they must be, by now; it’s been years since they stopped speaking to me.

Whatever Jessica’s story, many people commiserated, admitting that they too had this malady. Resonating with my own experience, one of her commenters said he usually had to watch a movie twice to remember it.

Not to deny there are lines to be drawn. For instance, at Practo, an anonymous 24-year-old male posted this cry for help:

Unable to recollect things, can’t remember movies, impossible to learn new softwares and language. Its destroying my social and career life…..im becoming invisible in society. I don’t even know whom to seek help from. Its like my brain is incapable of performing, processing, remembering or recollecting anything.

To which the ever-helpful Dr. Amit Mittal offered these valuable suggestions:

Don’t be depressed
Relax, meditate, get rid of tension
Consult a psychiatrist

I, myself, might have asked whether possibly the young man had just finished taking the New York bar exam. Because if so, I could sympathize. There’s also a question of which “softwares and language” the guy was trying to pick up. Like, APL and Japanese – yeah, I could see where that would fry one’s brain. Nonetheless, telling someone to see a shrink is almost always a good idea. Not necessarily conducive to heightened feelings of friendship among one’s peers, but definitely timely in America today.

That Practo comment alerts us to the possibility that movie amnesia may be a subtype of a more general media amnesia. The sorrowful MrGuy1312 says,

I have this thing where I literally cannot remember movies or series I’ve watched or games I’ve played or books I’ve read. I will remember whether I liked it or not as well as the main plot (not always), but character names or specific scenes or episodes or what happened where, I really cannot remember.

It seems, however, that media amnesia varies in form and scope. MrGuy1312 had much greater recollection than one of his commenters, who admitted, “I can honestly say that I know the plot to perhaps a total of 5 films.” That commenter attributed his forgetfulness to ADHD.

Regarding books in particular, Sarah (2015) explains why she dodged a meeting of an online book club:

[W]hen I thought back to interesting characters, I literally couldn’t remember the most basic information about them! Things like: whether he/she died at the end and his/her name!

My book memory is absolutely horrible…and, it’s even more alarming given I’m a book blogger! I spend a large percentage of my waking hours thinking about books. How is it that I can’t remember simple details about even my favorites?!

Sarah, too, drew comments from many readers who described their own symptoms – although, again, with a lot of variation.

One of those commenters came close to my experience when s/he wrote, “[A] few times, I finished a book only to realize I already read it.” That was the kind of experience that prompted me to write this post. The other night, I watched the movie “Interstellar.” I thought it was OK – which was kind of funny, because it turned out I had seen it before – probably circa 2014, when it first came out. I must have really liked it: that time, I gave it 9 stars on IMDb. But I watched the whole movie, this time, without registering that I had already seen it.

All I can guess is that I gave “Interstellar” that rating within moments after watching it – and then promptly returned to the rest of my life, and had no further acquaintance with it until this moment, eight years later, when its trajectory recrossed the vector of my life.

Which raises the question of whether I do this with other things. Like, when I tell friends that this is the first time I have ever had Bourbon Chicken, is that actually the third time I have told them that? And if so, is that OK? It may be. But I would advise, don’t risk saying this sort of thing after sex with someone who seems to be a new partner.

As far as I can tell, I don’t have Alzheimer’s, or at least not yet. Movie amnesia seems to be a semi-normal thing. Which itself is kind of scary, because if it’s OK to forget that you have completely forgotten two hours that you spent as a firsthand witness to an intense visual experience, what other kinds of funky things have you seen and blocked out? And is this something that we do every day? It seems that a person might want to keep a journal – and make time to go back and review its contents, maybe three days later.

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