Psychogenic Amnesia

In contrast to organic amnesia, psychogenic amnesia is caused by severe emotional trauma and does not entail structural brain injury. People with psychogenic amnesia exhibit a retrograde amnesia in which they lose memory for past events and previously known facts but are able to learn new information normally. Fugue state is a dramatic form of psychogenic amnesia in which an individual abruptly relocates to another city or region, assumes a new identity, and has no apparent memory of his or her previous life.

Psychogenic amnesia occasionally conveys psychological protection to the sufferer, walling off memory of unbearable trauma. Sigmund Freud described the defense mechanism of repression, in which disturbing thoughts or experiences are effectively forgotten by being relegated to the unconscious. As discussed in Chapter 3, the recovery of repressed memory has been a highly controversial issue in cases of suspected childhood abuse.

In other instances, retrograde amnesia is faked, apparently to serve a more nefarious purpose. Malingered amnesia may constitute an attempt to elude responsibility for moral or criminal wrongdoing.

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