Pixar Offer Insight into Living with a Mental Disability

Can you imagine having no choice but to always live in the moment because the moment you’ve just left is gone and forgotten? Or heavily depending on  a system in which you can recover details about your life because although you know who you are, you can’t keep a hold on your own memories. Pixar’s new animation, Finding Dory introduces us to Short Term Memory Loss in more depth and detail than we were privy to in its prequel, and offers a lot more than just laughs and emotion.

Dory is a charming Pacific blue tang fish that suffers from Short Term Memory Loss. She is the supporting character from the film’s prequel, Finding Nemo. It is always quite a huge risk to take the supporting character of a film and making them the lead character of the sequel. It turns all our attention to the supporting character, putting a microscope on whether we can really be invested in this character enough for our interest to be held through to the end. In this case, the answer is yes. Not only does it grow increasingly interesting throughout, but we’re given the opportunity to walk away from the experience having learnt something new about the world we live in. We know of mental disability but do we understand it? Do we know how to accommodate those with mental disabilities without being prejudiced or stigmatising them?

In this film we get to see how Dory’s daily functioning is really affected by her disability. We’re slowly led into her subconscious as she starts to discover supressed memories that are suddenly springing to the surface of her mind. These fragmented memories of her past remind her that she has a family somewhere, one that she hasn’t seen since she was a child and so she is overcome with an urge to find them.

Short Term Memory Loss is famously understood as an affliction that is acquired either at birth, or by injury, or even as an early sign of dementia. From experience with my younger brother I know epileptic seizures can cause STML too. It is also well known for how it doesn’t affect long term memories so much as it does the more recent ones. In Dory’s case, one could argue that her memories are just resurfacing as they become long-term. But every memory that resurfaces is prompted by an image or a phrase, something that is familiar to her. This technique is called mnemonics.

Now, I don’t just happen to know the scientific term for this technique, I came across it after some research on ways in which STML is managed and can be improved. Mnemonics is basically attaching a word, phrase or image to an object in order to trigger a memory. Just like we’re taught to do in preschool as a way of remembering things such as the names of the planets in our solar system or even just the days of the week. Without giving away too much, this is the exact technique that is used to progress Dory’s storyline.

Dory’s parents teach her to use this technique by rooting her memory in her love of the shells at the bottom of the ocean. Granted this takes very long to register in her mind but, for the sake of story, it eventually works, and begins her journey across the ocean. And just like that, without even realizing it, we’ve been educated and given insight into the life with a mental disability.

In order to understand others, we have to be willing to try see things from their perspective. How can we see things from the perspective of one with a mental condition that we don’t understand? By learning more about mental disability. And that is where we can find a special appreciation for movies that tell those stories. Nemo, who we get to see play a more active role this time, pushes his dad to try to be more understanding of Dory. He is the voice of inclusion, urging his dad to try and look at things from Dory’s point of view, prompting him with questions like “What would Dory do [in this situation]?”

Marlin (Nemo’s dad) often gets frustrated with Dory’s constant forgetfulness and his impatience only contributes to her insecurities. He serves this story as the voice of those who have not yet learned how to be inclusive. In this, Pixar teaches us that we need to be supportive in all our interactions with mental disability, in order for people to match their potential. And we all have potential. “Don’t make her feel like she can’t do it. I trust her,” Nemo says.

I am no doctor or medical journalist, only a young writer with an interest in the interesting. And what’s more interesting than mental diversity? From the highest functioning to the lowest, the mental condition is fascinating. So what better film to celebrate this with than a beautiful Pixar animation that explores mental disability through Short Term Memory Loss?

Marlin and Nemo return to the screen to teach our children (and us adults too, no doubt) a lesson or two about disability inclusion, understanding and unconditional love. It is packed with funny, loveable characters that, I think, could even pull off their own spin-off movies.

If you’re not convinced but would still like to see a really good film about short/long term memory loss or amnesia (as they are often merged in stories for maximum dramatic effect) then here is a short list of some of the best films I know in various genres that use memory loss as a storytelling device:

  1. The Bourne Film Series (2002-2016) – Action Thriller
  2. Memento (2000) – Psychological Thriller
  3. 50 First Dates (2004) – Romantic Comedy
  4. Total Recall (1990) – Sci-Fi Action

What are your favourite movies about mental disability?