Feb 13, 2020 in Health

Amnesias and the Understanding of Memory

In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the exploration and the analysis of memory and amnesia. This has seen students of normal memory getting engaged in endless streams of experimental and counter theories as they explore the memory phenomena. In the process, there has been a growing concern on the subject of human amnesia, particularly in the psychological field. As a result, amnesia research involving normal and abnormal memories have taken the form of inclusion of some established clinical facts about amnesia syndrome in the primarily theoretical discussions on the distinction between long-term and short-term memories. However, some scholars have argued that the contended amnesia phenomena cannot be included in the desirable boundaries of memory studies. Their argument is based on the fact that it is still difficult to understand the memory of a typical college student that makes it complicated and assumptive to attempt to explain memory based on studies of patients with brain damages. In their view, the usefulness of amnesia data in the understanding of memory is at best doubtful. This can be interpreted that all explorations of memory based on pathological deficits to the functioning and the structure of normal memory are of uncertain validity. Nonetheless, a growing number of scholars seem to believe that amnesia phenomena provide valuable information on the understanding of memory. As such, this essay aims at providing a vivid description of amnesias and their effect on the current understanding of memory. Additionally, the paper highlights the pros and cons of using patients with brain damage to inform cognitive neuroscience.

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Amnesia typically refers to a condition where stored memories or the process of committing something to memory is lost or disturbed. However, normal simple routine absent-mindedness or failing to remember some details about an issue are not qualified as the symptom of amnesia. Essentially, amnesias are typically greater than simple memory loss and result from the physical damage of the brain (organic causes), the outcome of neurological diseases, or the use of drugs such as alcohol (neurological causes). Moreover, episodes of memory loss that can be categorized under amnesias can also be triggered by psychological factors including psychological defense mechanisms, mental disorders, and exposure to extreme and sensitive events such as terror attacks or wars leading to post-traumatic stress. Therefore, the categorization of amnesias has been primarily based on their causes or the resulting symptoms. For the purpose of this evaluation, the focus will be on the two main types of amnesias that affect either short-term or long-term memory. Hopefully, the evaluation will elucidate the reason why adults cannot remember most of their childhood life despite not suffering from any brain damage, psychological factors, or neurological interferences from drugs-related causes. Therefore, amnesia can be said to contribute to the understanding of memory merely because it refers to the loss of ability to memorize data or recall information that was previously stored in memory.

As indicated above, there are two broad categories of amnesia, namely the anterograde and the retrograde amnesia. The first type refers to a disturbance of the brain leading to the inability to transfer new information from the conscious short-term memory into the long-term and relatively permanent memory, which means the affected person’s ability to memorize new things is impaired or entirely lost. In the second category, individuals who suffer amnesia is still able to commit new information to memory although they cannot recall most if not all the information that was stored in the long-term memory before the onset of amnesia. Although anterograde amnesia is the most common, the two can still happen simultaneously to one person resulting in what is referred to as global or total amnesia. Other types of amnesias include psychogenic amnesia, which results from psychological factors, and post-traumatic amnesia, which represents a state of confusion and memory loss as a result of traumatic brain injury. Furthermore, infantile amnesia is the term used to refer to the inability of adults to remember events that occurred between age zero and four. Although the magnitude of this rather natural form of amnesia is slightly different from one person to the other, it is the only form of amnesia that all individuals suffer.

After appreciating the various types of amnesia, the focus now turns to the ways in which they help elucidate how the brain store and retrieve memories. Evidentially, the primary reason why amnesias contribute to comprehending the way the brains function is that the majority of them affect the hippocampus, a region in the brain associated with encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories. Amnesia creates blockage on the pathway that memories follow when being stored or retrieved that, when contrasted to storage and retrieval processes of a normal human being, inform cognitive neuroscience. In fact, lesions in the brain resulting from neurological diseases or accidents have so far been named as the primary cause of amnesias. Other causes may include intense stress and loss or deprived blood and oxygen flow to the brain as well as hospital treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy. Furthermore, appreciation of stress as a potential cause of amnesia helps in the understating of memory since this factor activates adrenal glands leading to the release of hormones that fundamentally affect the plasticity of the brain's neurons. Moreover, alcohol intake is also known to affect the strength of neurons connections, particularly in the hippocampus regions, that in the process impacts the ability to store memory in the long-term memory sections of the brain. For instance, Clive Wearing ability to retrieve procedural memory evidenced in his ability to play musical instruments and, at the same time, inability to remember greeting his wife after just 30 seconds illustrate how amnesias affect modern understanding of memory.

One of the advantages associated with the use of patients with brain damage in cognitive neuroscience studies is that it creates a separate group of brain functionality that can be compared to the normal brain as the control factors. Moreover, such patients enable scientists to conduct the experimental psychology of memory leading to the increased utilization of received data in the development of neurological theories. On the other hand, the process is disadvantageous because brain damages compromise patient’s cognitive functions making the validity of the data collected from them highly questionable.


In summary, amnesias have been identified as any disturbance of the functioning of the brain as a result of physical damage, psychological factors, or neurological factors that affect the ability to encode, store, and retrieve memories. Although amnesias are majorly temporary conditions, they create an alternative that, when compared to the standard functioning of the brain, generates insights to memory students. Through studies of this nature, procedural memories are also referred to as memories of habits that have been shown to be more durable when compared to descriptive, or events, and facts memories. Moreover, despite the questionability of the validity of information gathered from experimenting on patients with brain damages, such data remain an important stimulant of research on cognitive neuroscience as well as episodic memory conducted by experimental psychologists. Finally, the idea is likable because it helps people to think of amnesias resulting from generalized brain malfunctions as a particular case that can be contrasted with the general pattern of neurological and mental development.


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