Autobiographical Memory Loss: Do You Have It?

Autobiographical Memory Loss: Do You Have It?

James Kirk 2 months ago

Some people struggle to be in the moment. To some, on the other hand, being in the moment comes reflexively. They have little autobiographical memory; they have Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM).

According to a BBC feature, the condition is a relatively new discovery. Susie McKinnon has it. She doesn’t recall being a child or remember being any age other than she is now: in her 60s. She can’t remember special events, either. She knows she went to her nephew’s wedding. She knows her husband went with her. But she can’t actually remember being there. She is prone to thinking in terms of the third person.

She has very few memories of her life, even though she doesn't have amnesia, which is mostly caused by an illness or brain injury. McKinnon can remember that events had happened; she just doesn't recall her being there. A little more than a decade ago, after breaking her foot and having time on her hands, she began reading about research on mental time travel and decided to contact a research scientist working in the field.

She nervously sent an email to Brian Levine, a memory scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto. Levine called it an exciting happenstance. The outcome of their interaction was the identification of the new syndrome – Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory.

Humans have the extraordinary ability to going back and forth in time at will in their mind's eye. They can think back to being in the classroom at primary school, or imagine that next weekend when they are sitting on a beach towel watching dolphins pop up in the sea. It’s probably not just the facts about situations that you imagine; you fantasize about the actual experience of being in a certain place. This is what McKinnon is unable to do.

Currently experts have little idea of how common SDAM, although Levine and his team are trying to find out, with an online survey. Five thousand people have already participated, with many saying they believe they have this condition. This is a self-selecting sample, but the numbers suggest it might not be rare.

So should you be worried if you have this condition? If it’s not affecting the way you live your life, probably not.

For McKinnon, she’s always lived like this – she doesn't know what it is like to be otherwise. And she now understands that other people are not making up stories when they relate life experiences.

“I’ve never had it any other way. So for me it’s not a loss,” she says. “Since I’ve never really had that ability, I can’t really feel the lack of it.”

And McKinnon sees another benefit of not being able to flit to the past or jump to the future: She doesn't have to strive to be in the moment. Being in the present is effortless for her because it’s the only way her brain operates.

Image credit: BBC

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