What Finding Dory Teaches Us About Memory Loss

More than a children’s animated movie, Finding Dory is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of someone with anterograde amnesia, or the inability to form new memories.

AsianScientist (Jul. 8, 2016)Finding Dory, the much-anticipated sequel to the hugely popular 2003 Disney flick Finding Nemo, recently splashed its way into cinemas. If you managed to catch it over the weekend, you’ll know that the story—without giving too much away—revolves around Dory’s memories of childhood that suddenly come rushing back.

Dory, a happy-go-lucky Regal Blue Tang, suffers from anterograde amnesia, or the inability to form new memories. It was well-established in Finding Nemo that Dory has this condition, which is more commonly known as short-term memory loss.

In Finding Dory, it becomes an oft-repeated refrain: while Dory forgets conversations within minutes of having them, she never quite forgets who she is, or the fact that she has short-term memory loss, and can therefore explain her bizarre behavior to those around her. However, she has difficulty forming or encoding new memories, and is particularly bad with directions—there is one rather hairy moment where she gets lost in a maze of pipes, and the fear and claustrophobia felt real enough to make any fully-grown adult quake in their seat.

Indeed, this lighthearted children’s tale raises compelling questions about memory loss as a whole. How does short-term and long-term memory work? Can people with memory disorders remember certain crucial things and if so, how? More importantly, with parts of Asia facing a silver tsunami, how can we best treat memory loss in relation to dementia and Alzheimer’s?

The long and short of memory loss

According to Associate Professor Simon Collinson, who is the deputy director of clinical psychology programs at the National University of Singapore, short-term memory loss affects the acquisition, retention and recall of recently-learned information.

“Some examples of short-term memory loss are forgetting the name of a person you just met, or forgetting what you ate for breakfast,” he tells Asian Scientist Magazine.

In the same vein, fans of Finding Nemo will remember how Dory initially struggled to remember Nemo’s name.

Anterograde amnesia in humans is most associated with anterior temporal damage to the hippocampus, or the memory center of the brain, writes Dr. Mary Spiers, a clinical neuropsychologist from Drexel University in the US. Dory does mention that the condition runs in her family, which is possibly a nod to the notion of ‘goldfish memory.’

In Finding Nemo, repetition helps Dory to keep her attention on the task—P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney!—but as soon as her concentration is broken, the rehearsed information is lost. These problems in encoding new information, Spiers notes, are hallmarks of anterograde amnesia.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, refers to the recall of things from the more distant past, such as autobiographical information or world knowledge, explains Collinson. Examples of long-term memory problems include forgetting the name of a very familiar famous person from the past, or important personal information, such as your date of birth or your mother’s first name.

There are many, many causes of short- and long-term memory loss, Collinson says—injuries to the brain from accidents, infections such as encephalitis or diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, to name a few. NEXT PAGE >>>

Coming from a design background, Filzah brings a fresh perspective to science communications. She is particularly interested in healthcare and technology.

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