Totally Cerebral: Think Pop Culture Gets Amnesia Right? Forgetaboutit!

Many depictions of amnesia in TV, movies, and cartoons are just plain wrong — some laughably so.


Host Dr.Wendy Suzuki talks with Prof. Neal Cohen, a Neuroscientist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. For 20 years, Neal has used bad examples of amnesia that abound in pop culture as well as the rare accurate depictions as a powerful tool in his wildly popular undergraduate course about amnesia in pop culture. Neal entertains and educates his students with examples from TV shows and films as diverse as Futurama, Memento, and 50 First Dates, and we’ll hear some of those clips.

Inside the Episode:

Neal Cohen

Wendy and Neal illuminate some of the core features that define true amnesia, and discuss a classic finding that Neal published early in his career with Prof. Larry Squire, another expert on memory. They made the key distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that.”

Most amnesic patients can’t learn or remember that particular things happened in at a particular time or in a particular place. In fact, patients with severe amnesia are no longer able to learn or remember anything about what has happened to them. However, Neal Cohen and Larry Squire showed that the same amnesic patients could learn and remember how to do things, like work a lock, or solve a puzzle with blocks, or swing a racquet. Thus, they could learn and remember how to do things, but not that those things had happened.

At the end of every class, Neal asks his students to write their own short screenplay about a character with amnesia. If you feel inspired after listening to the episode, send us an amnesia screenplay synopsis in the comments section!

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

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