FROM GILLIGAN TO HOMER SIMPSON
Brain Injuries in the Media vs. Real Life
By Ed Roth and Will Grove
You’re probably familiar with the scene— the star of the show walks down the street, minding his own business, when without any warning, BAM! He gets hit in the head and develops amnesia. He’s able to function, but can’t remember his name, doesn’t recognize his family, and can’t identify any friends. Think Gilligan’s Island (The Skipper getting conked with a coconut), or any Buster Keaton film, for that matter.
Everybody tries to help him regain him memory with no luck. Finally, someone suggests hitting him on the head again. According to TV/cinema logic, this will bring back his memory, but the only thing he won’t remember is the amnesia.
Eventually, he gets the desired “kabong!” and all is well.
The other scenario is with every subsequent hit on the head, he gets amnesia again, then goes back to normal, and so on.
So, how close is any of this to real life?
Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) Resource Facilitation Specialist Will Grove says these examples aren’t exactly how it goes, but there are some surprising similarities. “From slapstick to today, the old amnesia trope still gets laughs, but it’s rare to lose your memory the way it’s often depicted. Permanent loss of pre-injury memories is not very common and loss of all past memory is extremely rare. While survivors may struggle to access pre-injury memories initially, and may at first not even recognize loved ones, these memories usually return as the brain heals,” Will says. One exception to this would be recollection of the actual incident in which someone is injured. Typically, survivors aren’t able to recover a memory of this as it was effectively never ‘saved’ in the first place.
It is common, however, for brain injury survivors to experience lasting deficits when it comes to forming new memories post-injury. This can range from difficulty remembering new names and facts, to even forgetting entire events.
An extreme, but not wholly inaccurate example of this type of memory loss in a brain injury survivor, is the movie Memento. In this thriller, an investigator is unable to create any new memories as he tries to find his wife’s murderer. (Brain injury survivors commonly lose some ability to create new memories, but the total and permanent loss of this ability is very rare.) The story is told in reverse order, which not only elevates the suspense, but is a unique visual demonstration of the difficulties a survivor with memory problems may face when trying to remember and reconstruct important moments from the past. It also shows how frustrating it can be when, due to the injury, some of the memories that would have been useful were never even recorded.
Wile E. Coyote
Brain injury survivors develop different techniques and strategies to compensate for their memory loss and in this regard, the protagonist in Memento is no different. Some of his strategies are fairly extreme, as his memory loss and circumstances are extreme (and it is still a movie, after all.) He goes so far as to tattoo key facts backwards on his torso so he can see them in the mirror. Some of the techniques he uses, though, are no different from those employed by real survivors every day. For example, Will points out a strategy in the movie that is quite practical: “He keeps a notebook. Many survivors depend on lists, calendars, and notepads to stay organized and remember important things they may otherwise forget.”
Over in Cartoon Land, concussion victims are woozy as imaginary birds or stars circle above their heads. In reality, when trauma occurs, people often see something around them similar to stars. “It’s common to see light flashes due to damage to the occipital lobe, which is located in the back of the head and affects visual perception,” Will shares. “This symptom can occur after a blow to the back of the head or to the front, as the force from the blow can cause the back of the brain to hit against the inside of the skull (an effect known as ‘coup contrecoup’).”
On the big screen, a concussion can lead to a drastic personality change, or even the adoption of a foreign accent.
“The foreign accent thing is exceedingly rare, but a very small number of cases have been recorded,” claims Will. “It’s called Foreign Accent Syndrome, and has been associated with strokes and other brain injuries, but only 60 cases of this have been recorded worldwide in the past 100 years.
More often, people will undergo a change in personality, although not as dramatically as you usually see onscreen. Depending on what part of brain is affected, these changes can range from taste in food or music to even someone’s outlook on life. “I’ve seen many cases where an unhappy person becomes much more empathic to the plight of others,” Will recalls.
The following are some other movies that Will believes get brain injury right:
The Mayerowitz Stories features an accurate depiction of the patriarch’s struggles with brain injury and the medical system.
The movie Concussion starring Will Smith helped create awareness and was pretty much on target.
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is the true story of the editor of Elle magazine who suffers a stroke. Although he is almost completely paralyzed, he can communicate through movement in one eye. “It’s an incredibly inspiring story and demonstrates how people can overcome the ravages of brain injury,” Will says.
Then, there’s The Simpsons episode where Homer has a crayon removed from his brain and becomes a genius. “In real life, if it were pulled out, the neurons wouldn’t reconnect,” explains Will. “If the crayon had been in there for some time, there likely would have been other issues, such as brain bleed, which would have required a life-saving trip to the ER, since blood is toxic to brain cells. It would have affected the temporal lobe as well, which affects sequencing.”
That all might have been the least of Homer’s worries. With all the other brain injuries he acquired throughout the series, he would certainly have damaged his frontal lobe, affecting emotional regulation and critical thinking. Any fan of the show might argue this is the real reason for his weekly spate of bad decisions.
“Brain injury on TV and in movies may be entertaining, but in real life it’s no laughing matter,” concludes Will. “Real-life survivors, their families, caregivers, and professionals should be aware that BIAAZ is available with free resources to enhance recovery.”
ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA
The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness, and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members, and professionals.
What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.
The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:
- Works with the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
- Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
- Hosts the Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
- Deploys a Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response Team with peer support, training and family wraparound services
- Facilitates the Brain Health Advisory Council
- Manages a Statewide Neuro Info-Line 888-500-9165