Summer Course Aims to be Remembered

Summer's here, and the time is right for … going to class.

At the University of Virginia, about 4,500 students are taking advantage of the summer sessions to fulfill major requirements and take interesting electives. Among this year's notable courses is an examination of amnesia in film, a look at deafness in literature, the sociology of eating, and exploring kinfolks, families and relating in the African diaspora. Look for  profiles of Summer Session courses here each Wednesday for the next few weeks.

July 16, 2008 — In "Spellbound," Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 mystery, Gregory Peck plays a man who has lost his memory and is accused of murder. Ingrid Bergman, as the doctor who has fallen in love with him, tries a variety of techniques to retrieve his memory.

Peck's character is stereotypical of amnesiacs on film. All it takes to recover your memory, on film and in real life, is just another bump on the head, right?

Wrong, says Mandy Hege, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, who has just taught "Portrayals of Amnesia in Cinema," a course in the psychology department that aimed to change mass perceptions of amnesia and memory loss.

"The purpose of my course was to investigate how amnesia is portrayed in popular film and to analyze the extent to which these representations are consistent with empirical research on amnesia," Hege said. "We spent the first few days establishing a framework of memory, studying such topics as whether there is more than one memory system, how memory is assessed, and how memory is improved."

Incorporating readings on memory loss, as well as screening films dealing with amnesia lead to discussion of what is reality and what is embellished by Hollywood.

Hege said the media has represented amnesia in a way that does it little justice as a complex affliction..

"There are so many inaccurate portrayals of psychological phenomena in the media," Hege said. "I think it's important to be skeptical about what we hear in movies and on TV and to question the scientific basis for those portrayals. I designed this course because I think questioning the plausibility of what we're exposed to in the media is a useful skill for students to develop, and using movie portrayals of amnesia is a fun way for them to learn that skill."

Recent years have seen the film and television industry change how amnesia is interpreted in their mediums, with characters expressing symptoms more in line with the new scientific discoveries about the condition.

"Memento," a film about a man trying to avenge his wife's murder, despite suffering from anterograde amnesia, was the first dramatic movie in the recent renaissance about amnesia to portray a character who could not make new memories. This is noteworthy, given the all-too-common depiction of amnesia as a loss of personal identity that can be reversed with a second bump on the head. The film is still flawed, Hege said, because the protagonist would not be able to carry out an elaborate plan for revenge with his impairments. 

"What I really find intriguing about that movie is that it calls into question the relationship between our memories and reality and makes us realize that without our memory our lives are meaningless," Hege concludes.
Hege hopes her course changed common perceptions, a lesson she hopes her students will not soon forget.

The course was offered in the first summer session, from May 12 to June 6, with an enrollment of approximately 20 students.

-- By Jose Ricardo Lopez-Sanchez