All about the Lost Mariner
The Lost Mariner (2014) is truly fascinating, even though it was a real tragedy for its protagonist. This is a story about one of the many consequences that alcoholism can have on a person’s cognitive functions. In some cases, these consequences don’t appear in the short term but manifest over time.
The protagonist of The Lost Mariner was a man named Jimmie G. People who knew him said he was intelligent, friendly, a good conversationalist, and vivacious. At first glance, he didn’t seem to have any particular oddities. He was usually calm and affable.
However, he arrived at a nursing home with an enigmatic note, which didn’t seem to suit him. This note described him as someone “helpless, insane, confused, and disoriented”. Thus, it was obvious that he needed neurological treatment. Luckily for him, Dr. Oliver Sacks, a particularly sensitive and open man, was there to take over.
A revealing consultation
The first consultation with Dr. Sacks was completely normal. Jimmie G. talked about his past with great joy and enthusiasm.
He used to work as a radio operator in the Navy and held a position as a substitute in their submarines. It was a fact that filled him with pride and brought him wonderful memories.
The protagonist of The Lost Mariner knew a lot of information about his hometown. He even offered to make a map and expressed himself fondly about this place. In addition, he talked about his school, his fondness for mathematics, and even remembered his childhood phone numbers.
What encouraged him the most was talking about his experiences in the Navy. He told Sacks about the missions he once accomplished. In addition, he mentioned that he wanted to keep on working there but decided to enroll in college instead.
The neurologist noticed something very particular about his way of telling past stories. Usually, when Jimmie talked about his childhood, he used the past tense. However, when he alluded to the Navy, he did it as if it was still happening.
The Lost Mariner and memory
When the neurologist noticed such peculiarities, he asked Jimmie, following his intuition, what was the current year. The patient, a bit taken aback by the question replied: “1945, of course”. And he then added, “We won the war!” In light of this funny response, Dr. Sacks asked his age. Again, a little surprised, Jimmie replied that he was 19 years old, going on 20.
Obviously, Jimmie was confused. Then, in a gut impulse, the neurologist took a mirror and put it in front of him. His intention was for the man to see with his own eyes that his hair was white and his face wrinkled, meaning that he definitely wasn’t 19.
Dr. Sacks was eager to confront his patient about such a mistake but the effect was surprising. Jimmie was shocked and gave no credit to what he saw in the mirror. He thought it was a joke or a nightmare. In fact, he even wondered if he was going crazy. For him, the image in the mirror didn’t correspond in any way to the image he had of himself.
A revealing fact
The neurologist understood his confusion and diverted the conversation to other topics. He easily got Jimmie to forget about the mirror and the reflected image. Later, the doctor left for a moment.
When he returned, Jimmie was totally unable to recognize him. It was as if he had never seen him in his life. Thus, Sacks got an idea of what was happening.
The Lost Mariner is a film that has to do with a problem called “anterograde amnesia”. This problem is characterized by the impossibility of storing short-term memories. You remember everything that happened before the amnesia occurred but you can’t remember what happened five minutes ago. That was what happened to Jimmie.
Upon inquiring into his past, Oliver discovered that Jimmie had a habit of drinking a lot of alcohol for many years. That damaged his brain, generating a problem called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Every person who excessively drinks alcohol can end up with this problem because alcohol alters metabolism and depletes vitamin B1, meaning it ends up affecting the central nervous system.
The Lost Mariner speaks not only of a neurological oddity but also of a human tragedy. Not having short-term memory means having no life. Memory is a fundamental part of your identity and not being able to store memories keeps you in a limbo in which time stands still.
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Palacios-Sánchez, L., Botero-Meneses, J. S., Guerrero-Naranjo, A., Vélez, M. C., & Mora-Muñoz, L. (2017). Oliver Sacks, maestro y divulgador de la Neurología: reflexión. Iatreia, 30(2), 230-237.