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As we discovered last month, Hollywood loves to use memory as a driver of blockbuster plots. This month we look at machines that read memories, renegade scientists who implant false memories, and what happens when you wake up with no memory of who you are. But how realistic are these portrayals of memory? In an on-going series, we’re going to explore popular movies with memory as a core component of their plot, and find out how accurate they really are. Here are the first eight movies on memory.

Before we move on, some analysis may give spoilers of certain plots. If you haven’t watched these movies and are curious, we encourage you to watch them first. Then come back and see how realistic they truly are.


If you could fast-forward through the difficult parts of your life, would you? Or, the better question is, should you?

Michael Newman (Adam Sandler) is an overworked architect. Bullied by his boss, he finds himself working long hours and neglecting his family. When he buys a universal remote control, he discovers it has the power to fast-forward through the unpleasant moments of his life. Newman uses it to his advantage at work, fast-forwards through illnesses, and other small moments. But when he is overlooked for a promotion, he moves past years of grueling work to achieve success. Only, life is not what he expected. Even worse, the remote learned his preferences. Unable to control which parts of his life he misses, Newman frantically tries to rewind—before it’s too late.

While the movie doesn’t specifically focus on a particular aspect of memory, it does highlight how profoundly important our memories are. When Michael Newman fast-forwarded through his life, his body was on auto-pilot. As a result, he had no recollection of what happened while he was “out”. Because of this, he woke up disoriented and had to continually piece together events that led to his current moment. The good news is there isn’t technology that can perform this way. But it’s possible to check-out and live in auto-pilot. Every time you scroll your social media feed while half-listening to a friend or family member, or zone out on hours of binge watching television instead of spending quality time with the people you love, you can lose time and in effect, lose memories. If you do that too much, how much of yourself do you end up losing, too?

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Before I Go to Sleep

Every day Christine Lucas wakes up to a stranger claiming he’s her husband. But when memories start to surface, she no longer knows who she can trust.

The man Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes up to says he’s her husband. A victim of a car accident, Christine hasn’t been able to form new memories for years. She sees a therapist who encourages her to record her thoughts in a video journal. Every morning, Christine watches the videos to try and stitch together the memory of her past. But when she does start to remember flashes of her past, one thing becomes clear. The people she trusts most are lying to her. And she has no idea why.

Christine Lucas suffers from anterograde amnesia, a type of memory loss that prevents her from forming new memories. If this type of memory loss feels familiar, that’s because movies and books commonly used it as a storytelling device. (We mentioned a few other examples in our last blog post.) Some aspects of living with anterograde amnesia are accurate in this movie. Things like the post-it notes around the house, using a journal to help remember their daily routine, and treatment with a neuropsychologist.

We don’t know how long Christine had been living with her amnesia. But generally, the longer a patient has amnesia, the more likely the condition is permanent. Further, without healing the area of the brain that caused the memory loss to begin with, it’s highly unlikely she would recover her memories. It’s also odd where she lost her memories. Often, the patient would lose memories after the injury, not years beforehand. And the sudden presence of one individual would not likely cause the patient to suddenly regain their lost memories.

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Finding Dory

A forgetful fish embarks on a journey to find her long-lost parents, discovering the power of friendship along the way.

When Dory (Ellen Degeneres) was a young regal blue tang fish, she got separated from her parents. But Dory suffers from short-term memory loss. Without being able to remember how to get home, she eventually moved on, and forgot her parents entirely. One day, Dory suddenly remembers her parents and is determined to find them. With her friends by her side, Dory sets out to navigate her fragmented memories and the expansive ocean, hoping her heart will lead her home.

Dory often refers to her memory as short-term memory loss, but technically that’s not what she suffers from. She more likely has anterograde amnesia, where she cannot form new memories. If she had suffered from actual short-term memory loss, she wouldn’t remember Marlin or Nemo without significant reminders. According to memory specialist Pablo Piolini, Dory’s condition resembles developmental amnesia, where damage to the hippocampus occurs at birth or shortly after. These children can learn, reason, and acquire knowledge, but they struggle with their episodic memory. This is why Dory knows how to swim, can take care of herself, and even speak whale, but can’t remember where she lived or various elements of what happens in her day-to-day life. While Dory’s episodic memory is significantly impacted, her procedural memory is intact. This makes it possible for her to rely on repeated past learning—the way she does in the movie—to find her way home.

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The Bourne Identity

A man with amnesia discovers he has deadly skills when ruthless enemies pursue him, forcing him to piece together fragmented memories pointing to a dangerous, covert past.

Floating in the Mediterranean Sea, shot in the back, a man (Matt Damon) has no idea who he is. He’s proficient in combat and knows multiple languages, and hidden beneath the skin on his hip is a tiny projector with a Zurich safety deposit box number. With nothing else to go on, the man travels to Switzerland where he finds multiple currencies, passports, and weapons. Choosing the American option, he leaves as Jason Bourne. But the safety deposit box was compromised. And within minutes of leaving, Swiss police attempt to capture him. On the run, relying on skills he isn’t aware he has, Jason Bourne has to piece together who he is and why the CIA wants him dead before it’s too late.

Jason Bourne has psychogenic amnesia, a disorder marked by a gap in important personal history usually brought on my an injury or traumatic event. In this case, it’s reasonable to assume the gunfight that landed him in the Mediterranean Sea induced both injury and trauma, leading to the loss of his memory. But only specific to who he was before he woke up. His entire personal history was gone, outside of fragments of information, but his procedural memory was fully intact. That’s why he could remember languages, fighting techniques, and other skills he had already learned. And unlike anterograde amnesia, he can still retain new information, a detail that is very helpful when on the run from deadly assassins.

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Shutter Island

When a U.S. Marshal investigates the disappearance of a patient from an isolated mental institution, he uncovers dark secrets and shocking truths about both himself and the island.

In 1954, U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are investigating the disappearance of a woman on remote Shutter Island. Rachel Solando was at the isolated Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane for drowning her three children. But things on the island are immediately not what they seem. Plagued by headaches and vivd dreams, he admits that he accepted the job to search for Andrew Laeddis—the man who killed his wife when he was overseas. The longer he spends on the island, the stranger Teddy’s reality gets. When he discovers rumors of mind control experiments, Teddy no longer knows what to believe, or who to trust. And he can’t shake the feeling that he might be next.

While the premise of Shutter Island may not seem to deal with memory directly, Daniels is suffering from Delusional Disorder. To avoid the trauma of his past, he creates a vivid, new reality instead. He can’t face the painful reality of his memories, choosing to bury them deep into his subconscious and live in an alternate future where his past never took place. Delusional Disorder is rare, affecting only 0.05 – 0.1% of the population. While it’s usually associated with schizophrenia, trauma can trigger the disorder, as we see with Daniels.

Shutter Island does a fantastic job of showing how far the brain will go to protect you from harm. In Daniels’ case, remembering the truth of his past is so painful, his brain represses it. This repression then allows his delusions to manifest. Though the psychiatric techniques shown in the movie might seem extreme and barbaric, they’re likely an accurate representation of how doctors treated the disorder in the 1950’s.

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Dark City

A man with no memory of who he is or what he’s done wakes up in a strange city only to find he’s suspected of murder and on the run from both police and a mysterious group called “The Strangers”.

When John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, he doesn’t remember anything about who he is or how he got there. But a well-timed phone call and a mutilated body convinces him to leave the hotel. The police believe he’s responsible for murder, but even more alarming is the strange group of pale men in trench coats who are also hunting him. Lost in a city that never sees daylight, he follows the clues of his disjointed memories while growing increasingly suspicious of his surroundings. The more he remembers, the closer he gets to learning the dark truth behind The Strangers. But he’s running out of time.

It might seem like the far reaches of science fiction to inject memories and control a civilization, but this might not be as far-fetched as it seems. In 2018, scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, were able to inject memories in sea snails. And this research isn’t new. In 2013, researchers were able to insert encoded learning patterns from one rat hippocampus to another. While this isn’t exactly inserting an entirely new life of memories into the brain, the idea that even transferring encoded learning patterns from one brain to another was unthinkable at one point. As researchers continue to unlock how memory physically works in the brain, it may be possible that someday we could upload or download our memories from our brain as easily as our iPhone.

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Regarding Henry

When a ruthless lawyer is shot in the head, he loses his memories and mobility, forcing him to undergo a transformative journey of self-discovery and redemption as he recovers.

Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) has it all. He’s a cutthroat lawyer who’s reputation and ruthless tactics have made him a wealthy man. One evening, he’s shot in the head after accidentally interrupting a convenience store robbery. Though he survives, when he wakes, he can no longer move or remember anything about who he is. As he heals, he becomes a kinder, gentler person than his friends and family remember him as. As his relationships improve, Henry has to face the truth of who he was and decide what kind of man he wants to be.

The main injury to Henry’s brain was in his right frontal lobe. And because he was also shot in the subclavian artery, the subsequent bleeding caused him to go into cardiac arrest. This caused anoxia, resulting in further damage to the brain. These are incredibly serious injuries, and in many ways, the movie accurately portrays the difficulty a patient recovering from these wounds would experience. But in other ways, the movie idealizes the reality of what recovery would look like.

With a frontal lobe injury, social skills would notably change. The personality and behavioral changes he displays—impulsivity, attention problems, and the inability to regulate emotional reactions—are accurate. But these are typically more frustrating, leading to confusion, depression, and emotional outbursts. Henry does show these, but he also regains a lot of functionality that allows him to become a better person. In the end, the road to such a dramatic change would likely be a lot more difficult and take a lot longer than the movie portrays.

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In a climate ravaged world, people can relive their memories. But when a memory operator falls in love with a mysterious woman, he’s drawn into a dangerous obsession leading to a dark truth.

In a wild ravaged by climate change, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a business helping people relive their memories. One night, a woman asks him to help find her keys. Their connection is instantaneous. After months together, she disappears without warning. Mourning her loss, he loses himself in their memories together. It’s only when he’s hired to read the memories of a comatose patients that he realizes the woman he loved kept dark secrets from him. Desperate to understand who she was and where she went, he follows a twisted trail of memories towards a devastating truth.

While we aren’t anywhere near inventing a machine that allows others to watch your memories, it might surprise you to learn that this technology may be closer than you think. In 2009, scientists “mapped” memories using brain scans to predict where a patient was in a virtual building. We are learning where memories are stored, and how our brain works to retrieve those memories. But where the specific memory is located in detail is still an unanswered question.

Recently, researchers discovered that when it comes to learned tasks, the brain doesn’t store the whole memory together. Rather, when a musician plays an instrument, the brain pulls the individual components required one at a time. It them reassembles them in order milliseconds before playing. This makes mapping a specific memory a complicated task. That requires understanding all the areas a memory might reside and pulling them together in the right order, every time. But with every new discovery, technology like this becomes more plausible, even if it isn’t possible right now.


As science catches up, many plots that were once the stuff of science fiction is now shifting towards reality. Stay tuned for more amazing movies on memory, and our analysis of how accurate they are.

If you’re interested in improving your memory, check out our Kwik Recall class. In 31 days you’ll unlock your ability to learn faster, remember more, and unlock your limitless potential.

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