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I've seen it many times in movies; people not only forget something that happened, but they forget who they are entirely- including their name.

A much-used plot device, retrograde amnesia occurs when a person forgets part or all of his or her past.

Here is a list of movies (sorted by year) where people forget their own identity:

  • I Love You Again (1940)
  • Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  • Random Harvest (1942), in which Ronald Colman's character suffers from the condition not once but twice.
  • Crime Doctor (1943)
  • Anastasia (1956)
  • RoboCop (1987)
  • Overboard (1987)
  • Regarding Henry (1991)
  • The Majestic (2001)
  • The Addams Family (1991)
  • The English Patient (1996)
  • Dark City (1998)
  • Mulholland Drive (2001)
  • The Bourne Identity (2002)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)
  • The Number 23 (2007)
  • Spider-Man 3 (2007)
  • Unknown (2011)

A list of more of these movies can be found here

The reason I am so skeptical about this, is that a person's name is one of the first things they learn. Often even before an infant learns to talk, it will still respond to it's name. So it would seem like, if you were unable to remember your name, you would also be unable to remember how to talk and do other very basic human functions. (This is just my speculation)

In addition, the term Retrograde Amnesia means the inability to remember something from the past (as apposed to Anterograde amnesia which is the inability to form new memories.) Retrograde Amnesia is a well known medical condition, however, I have yet to hear of a real, documented case, of retrograde amnesia that was so extreme, that the person couldn't even remember his or her own name / identity.

Retrograde Amnesia is often temporally graded, consistent with Ribot's Law: more recent memories closer to the traumatic incident are more likely to be forgotten than more remote memories.

In fact - the only time I have actually heard of this happening (a person forgetting who they were), was with regards to Stage III Alzheimer's Disease. However, in Stage III Alzheimer's, the other symptoms include "Loss of communication, relying instead on grunts or moans", and "Loss of control over bodily functions, such as trouble swallowing or lack of bowel and bladder control".

Is there any scientific evidence or backing to this being possible (forgetting one's own name / identity, but still being able to function as a normal human being)? Has there ever been a documented case of this actually happening?


Edit: for those of you wondering, the link on Wikipedia on retrograde amnesia doesn't cover forgetting your name

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    @YannisRizos - The link on wikipedia doesn't cover forgetting your name, which is what I am asking about. -- "Retrograde amnesia (RA) is a loss of access to events that occurred, or information that was learned, before an injury or the onset of a disease. RA is often temporally graded, consistent with Ribot's Law: more recent memories closer to the traumatic incident are more likely to be forgotten than more remote memories." – Ephraim May 3 '12 at 15:38
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    Isn't en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjaman_Kyle sufficient example? – Lev Bishop May 9 '12 at 22:59
  • Responding to one's name and being actively able to remember it are two different things. - Does forgetting one's name for a few hours after a hypnosis session count or does the person has to forget it permanently? – Christian May 17 '12 at 22:37
  • @Christian - I guess they could both count, I was referring to what you would see in the movies, where person-A would say Person-B's name, and person-B would ask "who's person-B?". He doesn't recognize his name, but is still capable of normal cognitive and physical function outside of the specific information that the amnesia affected. – Ephraim May 17 '12 at 23:07
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    Anyway, a plot device that you might see in a movie is not a claim that it could possibly happen anyway. Movies have no claim to reality. Otherwise, this site would be asked to field questions about Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. – user3344 May 18 '12 at 0:40
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I'm not sure why the OP is attributing so much importance to one's name as compared to recognising people close to the amnesiac or similar. But, here goes ...

From Wikipedia's entry for retrograde amnesia:

As previously mentioned, RA commonly results from damage to the brain regions most closely associated with episodic and declarative memory, including autobiographical information. In extreme cases, individuals may completely forget who they are. Generally, this is a more severe type of amnesia known as global or generalized amnesia. However, memory loss can also be selective or categorical, manifested by a person's inability to remember events related to a specific incident or topic.

From page 220 of Psychology and Education, Volume 11:

This is particularly true when an accident renders one unconscious. One is quite unable to recall what happened, or how the accident came about. The loss of memory may extend backwards over a period of only seconds or minutes; but the disruptive effect can also entail a retrograde amnesia which, in an extreme instance, may involve the whole of one's past life. Cases have been reported in which, after recovery from a shock involving a state of coma, the entire memory was a blank, the individual being unable to remember or recognize even his own name.

From the journal, Learning & Memory, a study titled "Functional Amnesia: Clinical Description and Neuropsychological Profile of 10 Cases" (case #10):

His personality also changed after the accident. He seemed more pleasant and was a more motivated student, though he was more introverted and isolated. He lost interest in his religion, which had been important to him before the accident. He was also immature and childlike in his social interactions. He was less aware of the feelings of other individuals. He did not understand jokes and interpreted them literally.

At the time of our evaluation, he told us that following the accident he had not remembered his own name or how to speak. He said that he relearned the English language during his first 2 d in the hospital by reading a dictionary. He had some recall for faces of persons he knew when he was very young. He had relearned other information from the past.

So, yes, it is possible for an amnesiac to forget his/her own name and identity, and there are documented cases where this has happened.

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    I have problems seeing why the OP equates "name" with "identity". It's just a label (groups of) people apply to you. Many people use different names at different times and contexts. My parents called me one thing as a child; my schoolfellows had several other names they called me; in the military I was some other name; nowadays I choose to be addressed differently in my professional & private lives... None of those different names ever changed my essential identity - in the sense of knowing myself rather than the legal "show me your papers!" legal sens. – jamesqf Nov 17 '16 at 18:44
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Amnesia relating to identity can result from severe, repeated abuse at an early age, in which case it is called Dissociative Amnesia. Rather than the "I bumped my head and can't remember anything" trope, it's believed that Dissociative Amnesia occurs as part of a coping mechanism developed in response to early and repeated trauma (eg. ritual abuse) when a child has no other way of coping with what's happening to them other than compartmentalising their emotions and experiences.

In cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personality disorder) different identities within the same person may have conflicting memories of the past, and certain identities may not be aware others exist. Dissociative Fugue is another facet of Dissociative disorder (previously called Fugue state) where due to a traumatic experience an individual goes to a different place and temporarily forgets their name and history. (This might be closest to the kind of amnesia that gets used as a device in films.)

For more info the charity Mind has a good introduction to Dissociative disorder here.

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    I don't think this is the kind of thing the original poster was thinking of. Aside from that, this is one of the most controversial diagnoses in modern psychology. On a site for skeptics, you should present much more convincing evidence for its reality. (If you can do that, you may be qualified to answer the following question: Multiple personalities: Do they exist?) – purposeful porpoise Nov 17 '16 at 18:01

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