It’s a rare thing for people to lose their memory of past events. An expert discusses why doctors believe it may occur, and a woman to whom it happened recounts her experience.
- Naomi Jacobs, amnesia victim and author, Forgotten Girl
- Dr. Jason Brandt, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
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Waking Up In The Future
Reed Pence: Back in 2008, Naomi Jacobs of Manchester, England, was a 32-year old single mom with a 10-year old son. She was running a homeopathy business and studying for final exams for a psychology degree. But she woke up one morning not knowing any of that. She thought she was 15 years old and the year was 1992.
Naomi Jacobs: I woke up and the last 17 years of memories were just gone completely. As soon as I woke up, I thought I was still dreaming because I instantly didn’t recognize the bedroom. I looked down at my body, everything felt different. I jumped out of the bed, I looked around the bedroom. I thought initially that I was still dreaming, that it wasn’t real. In fact it felt like a bit of a nightmare and then it wasn’t until I ran into the bathroom and I saw my face in the mirror. And I’d seen that I’d aged 17 years, well considerably in my 15-year old opinion. And that’s when I knew that it was real, what was happening to me, that’s when it felt more than a dream.
Pence: Naomi had amnesia and the last 17 years of her life were simply gone from memory. She didn’t recognize the boy who ran up to her calling her “mom.” She didn’t know what to do with the little handheld device in her bedroom that was ringing like a phone. She was a frightened time traveler.
Jacobs: Eventually when I did hear a mobile phone ringing and then saw it on my bedside cabinet, that’s when I really, really started to believe that I was in the future. That a considerable amount of time had passed. That and the photographs on the wall, once I’d stopped and looked at the photograph of my family, I could see that my sister had aged and my father had. That’s when I thought, “What year is this?”
Pence: Most amnesia shows up as an inability to retain new information. They can’t remember what’s just happened or learn new things. Head trauma or Alzheimer’s disease are common causes of that type of amnesia. Naomi’s type of amnesia is much more rare. Movies and TV shows make losing one’s past seem a lot more common than it really is.
Jason Brandt: They’ll often lose their identity, they don’t know their names, they don’t know where they’re from, they can’t recognize family members. On the other hand, they can learn and remember new things quite well. And this is something that we typically call functional amnesia or psychogenic amnesia. This is a condition where there’s not any neurological damage that we can see in the brain, it’s not a problem with the hardware so to speak, but a problem with the software.
Pence: That’s neuropsychologist Dr. Jason Brandt, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of medicine.
Brandt: The information is fundamentally there, the person who develops a psychogenic amnesia and doesn’t know his name or his address or where he’s from or where his hometown is, he can’t report that, he cant recall it, but it’s there. It’s stored in his memory, it’s just an inability to access it. That information doesn’t rise above a certain threshold to enter the person’s consciousness. So we believe that excitatory impulses are sort of swamped by inhibitory mechanisms. That somehow the brain is sort of clamping down on memories.
Pence: However, there’s plenty about amnesia that doctors don’t know. For example, they’re not sure why the brain turns off access to past memories, but Brandt says it’s very rarely the result of a physical injury, like a blow to the head. It’s much more likely a psychological reaction to severe stress.
Brandt: We really don’t know, we think that very often there are stresses in the person’s life that the patient can’t cope with in other ways. There’s an event or a situation that is intolerable and the patient might have not very good coping strategies or coping resources. And by forgetting and denying the existence of one’s past, one can escape things. Many of these patients will also travel and basically run away from home. Many of the cases that have been reported have been found to sort of come out of their amnesic episode after weeks or months they’ve been missing persons basically and all of a sudden will come to a realization that they’ve been living another life.
Pence: Naomi’s case fits that description.
Jacobs: I’d been in a lot of different therapies, I was uncovering memories of child sex abuse and things that happened to me in my childhood and also my relationship with my mother who is an alcoholic. She’s been sober for seven years now but at the time, she was deep in her alcoholism and was very fractured. And my relationships, my friendships, and my relationship with my son’s father and I tend to, drugs I tend to, cocaine and marijuana. All of this ultimately led to me having a nervous breakdown.
Brandt: There are risk factors, there are certain things that are often associated with psychogenic amnesia such as problems with stress, such as witnessing or experiencing very traumatic, emotionally traumatic events and people who in general are not terribly sophisticated might have poor coping mechanisms. Sometimes they’ve had personal histories of head injuries in the past that are sort of minor injuries which might make them more vulnerable people generally. Many of these people, it comes out later, have some legal entanglement. Either they’re wanted by the police for questioning about some event or they’re skipping out on alimony payments or child support payments or have a big financial settlement against them and that they can’t deal with and then that’s associated with the amnesic episode.
Pence: Scientists are learning much more about how memories are formed, but Brandt says they haven’t yet figured out the mechanism that makes already formed memories inaccessible.
Brandt: At the chemical level, people are implicating the role of certain hormones and neurochemicals that are critically important in memory. For example, cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s naturally released by the adrenal glands and it interacts with epinephrine or adrenaline and it controls the body’s response to stress and response to low blood sugar. At the same time, cortisol, when it is high for a long period of time, that is when a person is under chronic stress and is producing a lot of cortisol, cortisol can actually injure neurons in the brain in the memory important structures like the hippocampus.
Pence: And just as doctors are unsure what makes past memories inaccessible… They’re also not sure what makes them come back. But fortunately, Brandt says they usually return over time.
Brandt: One of the things that I always tell these patients when I see them is that yeah, it’s the stressing now, it’s obviously upsetting to you, but you will get better. The memories do come back. The treatment for psychogenic amnesia is primarily a psychological treatment. It involves removing the person from whatever the situation is that’s troubling him. Most patients get better. Some get better right away. I think in one series of ten patients, I believe it was two of the ten got better within weeks and the other eight got better over the next year. So it is quite variable.
Pence: Brandt says recovery time is also heavily dependent on the conditions the patient’s living under.
Brandt: So for example if there’s a legal issue or a legal entanglement, if that gets resolved, that can also be helpful. If the person is put into the hospital, that’s often very helpful to sort of remove the person from the stresses of dealing with the lifetime predicament. If they have a good therapist and a counselor who can gently ease the person back into normal functioning. These patients get better with time. Sometimes hypnosis has been used in some cases with various levels of success, sometimes use of anxiety reducing medications to help the patient relax and let repressed memories or unacknowledged memories come to awareness, they sometimes are helpful as well.
Pence: Naomi Jacobs says she didn’t go to the doctor right away for her amnesia. In fact, it took her four days. She thought if she went to sleep, she’d wake up again with everything the way it’s supposed to be. Then when she went to her doctor, she says he was dismissive of her plight. But she says she had support and documentation of the years that were missing from her memories, and she says eventually the past returned.
Jacobs: Around the sixth, seventh week, I started to get my memories back. But they came back very slowly, it wasn’t overnight, it was a dripping tap into a sink, kind of and the sink fills up. It was like that, really. Fortunately, I did have 20 years worth of diaries and I believe those as well as the way my sister and my friends reacted in the first 24 hours. I think between those two, that was my saving grace. So by the eighth week, all my memories had fully returned.
Pence: You might think that surrounding an amnesiac with family photos and other reminders would similarly be helpful. And Brandt says sometimes it can be. But you have to be careful, because family may be the original cause of pain triggering the amnesia. Brandt recalls one patient for whom he consulted.
Brandt: He lost all of his past memories, but had no anterograde amnesia, had no inability to learn new things and so therapy for him took the place basically of re-teaching him his life story. We basically taught him his biography. He was a star athlete in high school so they took him to his high school and showed him the trophies that he’d earned in the trophy case and photographs from the team that he was on and so forth and that was helpful in reestablishing his memory. What he said years later though is that although he remembers his past now, it was like he’s learning someone else’s biography. He didn’t feel that he owned the memories the way we own our autobiographies. It’s as if he learned someone else’s life.
Pence: But Brandt says this athlete remembered how to play his sport perfectly. It’s what doctors would expect.
Brandt: Memory for procedures like sports, like how to drive a car, you know. If you have amnesia, you still remember how to drive a car. Its kind of what we call motor memory or procedural memory. And that kind of memory is based on a very different system in the brain. We even see patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease who have fundamentally no ability to remember things from moment to moment. But if they were musicians in their prior life, they could still sit down at the piano and play a beautiful song. So that kind of memory, what we call procedural memory, is left in tact.
Pence: Brandt says psychogenic cases of amnesia that last a long time tend to be in people who are less well adapted psychologically who have more emotional baggage and chaotic life experiences. In almost all cases, amnesia is terrifying, and most victims will do just about anything to get their memories back. But Naomi Jacobs says for her, amnesia brought perspective that she otherwise would never have had.
Jacobs: It was traumatic at the time and never played down the seriousness of it, but it was one of the best things that happened to me because it allowed almost for me to have, I’d say, a second chance at life. Because seeing my life through my teenage eyes, I could see things quite clearly and understand what was good for me and what wasn’t good for me and what was contributing to the nervous breakdowns that I had and the mental health issues that I had. And writing the book as well, it allowed me to deconstruct everything, deconstruct my whole experience with the amnesia but also everything that had led up to the amnesia as well. In a way, kind of rebuild myself from a new foundation and trying to find a way of healing my fractured psyche.
Pence: You can find out more about Naomi Jacobs’ book, Forgotten Girl, and about all of our guests on our website, radioehealthjournal.net. You’ll also find archives of our programs there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.