What is Dissociative Amnesia? - Definition and Symptoms

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  • 0:07 Dissociative Amensia
  • 1:18 Diagnosis
  • 3:16 Types
  • 4:53 Treatment
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

People respond to problems differently. Sometimes, people respond to trauma by losing part or all of their memory. In this lesson, we'll look at the symptoms, types, and treatments of dissociative amnesia.

Dissociative Amnesia

Cat is 25 and she has a pretty happy life. She has a boyfriend and a good job, and she enjoys hiking and camping on the weekends. But below the happy surface, there's something else going on. Cat has large scars on her body that she doesn't remember getting. And last week, she was in the store and met someone who claimed to have known her when Cat was 10 years old. The woman said that she was a nurse at a hospital where Cat stayed for two weeks after a bad accident killed Cat's mom and severely injured Cat.

Cat remembers being told that her mother died in an accident, but she doesn't remember being in the accident herself. Not only that, she can't remember anything from the time that she was supposedly in the hospital.

What's going on? Cat may have dissociative amnesia, a psychological disorder that involves losing one's memory after a traumatic event. You know how people sometimes joke about blocking painful memories out? Patients with dissociative amnesia actually do block things out. Let's look closer at dissociative amnesia, including how therapists diagnose and treat it and the different types of amnesia.


Imagine that you are a psychologist and Cat comes to see you. She's upset because she can't remember the accident. You think that she might have dissociative amnesia, but you're not sure. In order to be diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, there are a few criteria that need to be met. They are:

1. Memory loss that goes beyond normal forgetfulness.

Someone with a dissociative amnesia is most likely to have memory loss related to a trauma or stressful event. Also, the memory loss is personal; if someone forgets who is president of Bolivia, it doesn't count unless they themselves are president of Bolivia.

Cat's memory loss is severe. Most people would remember an accident that killed their mother and left them in the hospital. Not only that, but what she's forgotten is part of her personal experience, not some random facts. Because her memory loss is severe, related to some kind of trauma and personal, we can check this one off.

2. It is not caused by another disorder.

There are many psychological and physical disorders that can cause memory loss. If someone has a brain tumor, for example, and loses their memory, then it is not dissociative amnesia. Similarly, amnesia is a symptom in several other dissociative disorders.

If a person meets the criteria for a different mental illness, like a dissociative disorder, then they are not diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. But there is no evidence that Cat has a medical or psychological problem that could explain the amnesia, so she meets this criterion.

3. It causes distress or impairment.

Distress is when someone is upset or angry, and impairment is anything that keeps a person from functioning normally in some part of his or her life. Since Cat is upset, she meets the criterion of distress. Based on the criteria, you can diagnose Cat with dissociative amnesia.


Just as amnesia can be a symptom of physical and psychological illness, there are many types of amnesia. Some types of amnesia that are commonly seen in dissociative patients include:

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