What is... psychology series

What Is… Amnesia

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is amnesia.

Amnesia is a memory deficit that can go in two different directions.  Retrograde amnesia goes backward, affecting previously stored memories.  Anterograde memory loss goes forward, affecting the ability to move short-term memory information into new long-term stored memories.

There are multiple types of amnesia that can have retrograde or anterograde effects.  Typically the effect is on declarative memory (factual information) rather than procedural memory (how to complete tasks).


Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are degenerative diseases that cause memory loss as a result of physical changes in the brain.

Brain injury

Post-traumatic amnesia occurs following a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion.  While it lasts, new events can’t be stored in memory.  The effects can be both retrograde and anterograde.  The Galveston Orientation Amnesia Test (GOAT) is the most commonly used test for post-traumatic memory disruptions.


Transient global amnesia is a neurological disorder with attacks that last several hours and involve short-term memory being effectively knocked out, along with difficulties retrieving older memories.  Aside from that, though, the person is cognitively intact.  The cause isn’t understood, but it has been linked to migraines and epilepsy.


Dissociative amnesia can result from periods of dissociation, such as in dissociative identity disorder, or repressed memories.  Memory loss may occur during traumatic situations like sexual assault.  Some of the event memories may consolidate after a couple of nights sleep.

Korsakoff’s syndrome

Korsakoff’s syndrome can result from a severe deficiency in thiamine due to long-term alcoholism.  People with this disorder tend to confabulate, meaning their brain unconsciously makes up stories to fill gaps in memory.  This is not conscious lying; rather, it is an involuntary process.

Related to medical treatment

Drug-induced amnesia can be useful during medical or dental procedures to reduce memories of the procedure once it’s done.  Colonoscopies and wisdom tooth removal are examples of procedures where amnestic drugs like the benzodiazepine midazolam may be used.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can potentially cause anterograde and retrograde memory loss.  I experienced both.  The anterograde effects didn’t bother me all that much, and I didn’t tend to notice it as much as my family did, since they hadn’t forgotten that I’d already asked the same question 10 times.  The retrograde effects more disturbing.  Some of those memories came back eventually, but others didn’t.  It was a strange feeling, especially if I was looking at photographs of myself doing things I felt certain I’d never done.

Between all of these potential causes for amnesia and the cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking and memory, it really is quite amazing that our memories work as well as they do and as often as they do.


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

18 thoughts on “What Is… Amnesia”

  1. This is such an interesting post about a term I admittedly didn’t know much about. I always feel so much more informed after reading your psych related terms posts. I knew a little about amnesia relating to dissociating and trauma, but not much about it occurring from other circumstances. Great post!

  2. That is so fascinating, and I can’t tell you how much I love being back in psychology class! I just love this. All the interesting stuff without having to study for a test!

    I’m intrigued by how you didn’t remember photos of yourself doing things! That would be so spooky.

    I’ve had memory blocks several times in my adult life due to a stressful event occurring, and then I become very curious as to what I blocked out. I look at clues, gather evidence, but it’s gone. It’s always interesting, and somewhat weird. I think I’m very dissociative in a daily sense, with the way I can never remember anything at all, like how my week was or what I’ve blogged, or what you’ve blogged; and I sort of wander around talking to myself (or to imaginary friends) or singing all the time; and I’m spaced out in general, and I deliberately “block” bad days by sleeping them off. I’ve become so “good” at it over the years that I can’t remember stuff when I want to, even stuff that wasn’t stressful or overwhelming. It’s all gone. It doesn’t bug me too much, I’m sort of used to it, and I do have some major mental illnesses, so I guess it’s to be expected; but I’m just grateful it’s not Alzheimer’s or dementia. I also don’t internalize new people’s appearances unless I make an effort to try to remember key details of what they look like.

    Fascinating post!! I love the psychology angle and the info!! Super fun!

  3. I did not know there different types of amnesia. I do have things I have done in my past I don’t remember doing. I think it has to do with the way I acted. I just don’t want to remember myself doing those things.

  4. Wow, there are more forms of amnesia than I originally thought! I didn’t know about forms of amnesia such as transient global amnesia and dissociative amnesia. Great job bringing up more than just anterograde and retrograde amnesia, which is basically all that my psychology classes focused on. Keep up the good work!

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