Hollywood and the Double-Konk Theory of Amnesia

The ridiculousness of Hollywood science when it comes to memory loss.

It’s a tried-and-true Hollywood device: The stranger appears, danger close behind. The problem is that he can’t remember what to do because a blow to his head has left him with amnesia — the mysterious figure can’t even remember his own name. In movies and TV amnesiacs, one good bonk deserves another—it even requires one to restore lost memories. There’s an appealing symmetry to this and it makes for a simple and dramatic ending, but it doesn’t happen to be the way amnesia actually works. Not even close, even though about 40% of people surveyed believe it’s a real thing. Wherever did this goofy idea come from in the first place?

Associate Professor of Psychology at Drexel Mary Spiers teaches her students about “neuro-myths” — misconceptions about neurology that people get from movies, TV, and written fiction. She got curious about the origin of the so-called “double-konk” theory. Scientists had understood since ancient times that brain trauma could cause memory loss, but after being around for some time as a popular folk belief, the double-konk eventually gained traction even within the scientific community.

The earliest scientific reference to is from French physician Xavier Bichat in 1802.

Marie Francois Xavier Bichat

The anatomist believed that the two hemispheres of the brain were identical, and that a blow to one side threw it out of alignment with the other, causing the loss of memory. What would make more sense than a stout whack to the other side to push them back into place? He felt there was ample evidence that this was the case, citing “observations so frequently repeated of an accidental blow upon one side of the head having restored the intellectual functions, which had long remained dormant in consequence of a blow received upon the other side.” (Bichat himself died the same year he wrote about the double-konk. Coincidence?)

Silly as that sounds now — at least to apparently 60% of us — doctors and scientists back then generally believed that a loss of memory, and even mental illness, were the result of a brain out of balance. By the Victorian era, double-konk amnesia had become a fictive device.

Electricity-happy Victorians believed an electric charge could dislodge/repair one’s memory or sanity the same way as a bonk could, and attempted to imply galvanism to snap patients out of various mental maladies (including comas).

Galvanism patient

(It was even good for reanimating the dead. See Frankenstein)

Of course the truth of amnesia and possibility of a cure isn’t quite so simple, or quaintly hopeful. Damage to a brain’s neurons is only made worse by the second konk. The long-term prognosis and treatment for an amnesiac depends on what caused the amnesia in the first place and how severe the damage is.

So if you’ve got an amnesiac you want to help, put down that frying pan and take old what’s-his-name to a doctor. 

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less
Image source: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less