Some perfectly healthy people can’t remember their own lives

Psychologists in Canada think they’ve identified an entirely new memory syndrome in healthy people characterised by a specific inability to re-live their past. This may sound like a form of amnesia, but the three individuals currently described have no history of brain damage or illness and have experienced no known recent psychological trauma or disturbance.

In light of the recent discovery that some people have an uncanny ability to recall their lives in extreme detail, known as hyperthymesia or “highly superior autobiographical memory“, Daniela Palombo and her team suggest their syndrome is at the opposite extreme and they propose the label “severely deficient autobiographical memory”.

The researchers describe three individuals with the postulated syndrome: AA is a 52-year-old married woman; BB is a 40-year-old single man; and CC is a 49-year-old man living with his partner. All three are high functioning in their everyday lives, they have jobs, yet they also claim a life-long inability to recollect and relive past events from a first-person perspective (a condition they became fully aware of in their late teens or early adulthood). Their memory for facts and skills is completely normal. Two of the individuals had experienced depression many years earlier, but there was no evidence of this persisting.

Through intense neuropsychological testing for intelligence, memory and mental performance, the three individuals mostly scored normally or higher than normal. One key exception was poor performance on the ability to draw a complex figure from memory. The researchers think this visual memory deficit could be key to understanding their lack of autobiographical memories.

To test their memories of their lives, the researchers interviewed AA, BB and CC about various incidents from their pasts – a mixture of questions about generic life events and also personal incidents the participants proposed themselves after looking at their calendars or consulting loved ones.

Compared to fifteen comparison participants (matched with the target participants for age and educational background), the impaired participants were able to provide significantly fewer autobiographical, first-person details from their teen and youth years. For more recent events, the impaired participants’ recall appeared more normal, but the researchers think this is due to a combination of conservative scoring (when in doubt the researchers scored reminisces as autobiographical in nature), and the participants having learned compensation strategies such as studying diaries and photos and substituting their lack of autobiographical memory for memory of facts and semantic detail.

From a subjective perspective, the impaired participants described their own memories of past events from both distant and more recent times as almost completely lacking a first-person perspective or involving any sense of “re-experiencing”. They also struggled to imagine future events, consistent with the idea that memory and future imagination involve shared mental processes.

Brain scans of the impaired participants uncovered no evidence of brain damage or illness, but when they attempted to recall autobiographical details from their pasts, there was less activity in key brain regions associated with autobiographical memory, compared with control participants. This included the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus and parts of the temporal lobes. The right-sided hippocampus (an important brain area for memory) was slightly smaller in the impaired participants compared with controls. Whether cause or consequence, this might be relevant to their deficits but it also argues against the new syndrome merely being an instance of “developmental amnesia”, which in contrast is characterised by a drastic lack of brain volume in areas involved in memory.

The researchers urge caution given their small sample, and they admit that many questions remain. Yet they state “there is no evidence to support a neurological or psychiatric explanation for our findings”. If this research generates enough interest, I wonder if other healthy people will come forward and describe their own absence of autobiographical memories. This is what’s happened with some other neuropsychological syndromes recently, such as “developmental prosopagnosia“, which is  the term for otherwise healthy people who have a specific difficulty remembering and recognising faces.

Palombo and her team say “our goal was to describe the ‘severely deficient autobiographical memory’ cases’ cognitive syndrome and associated neuroimaging findings in as much detail as possible in order to stimulate further research on the nature of individual differences in episodic autobiographical memory…”. A crucial question they note, is “whether these findings reflect an extreme on a continuum of ability in episodic autobiographical recollection, or, they may be qualitatively set apart from the normal distribution of mnemonic capacities.”

UPDATE: The researchers have a website www.deficientautobiographicalmemory.com providing information on this new syndrome; you can also take part in a survey there and join a forum to share your experiences.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Palombo, D., Alain, C., Söderlund, H., Khuu, W., & Levine, B. (2015). Severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM) in healthy adults: A new mnemonic syndrome Neuropsychologia, 72, 105-118 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.04.012

further reading
Remembering together – How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

14 thoughts on “Some perfectly healthy people can’t remember their own lives”

  1. I cannot remember my past. I was a Marine in Vietnam 67-69 and I don’t hardly remember anything or anyone. My childhood was not easy to say the least and I am actually thankful that to me it was just a blur. Unless it is recent it seems I will eventually loose memory. This has been going on for years and it is frustrating. I am now 67.

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  2. Hey my name is Mark and I cannot remember anything that has EVER really taken place in my life. I try not to make it sound theatrical when explaining it but I feel nobody understands the extent of my lack of memories or even being able to retain new information. This is the closest thing I have come close to connecting with. I want to remember my life and have tried to unlock my subconscious psyche to extract anything but anything I find seems more like facts in a text book. I would love some feed back on the situation if possible.

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  3. Im trying to find out about my past i do not remember and i came across this condition called
    -Severely deficient autobiographical memory. It sounds like me whenever i want to remember anything from my past i have to call my girlfriends because they remember about my past and i dont.
    Please contact me throughmy email

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  4. I am so happy that i am not alone in this I agree with all of you. The best way I’ve been able to make any sense or even explain it is that we know the information we just can’t recall it. But I could be wrong we could really be forgetting or somehow dumping our memories. I also wanted to let everyone know that I am very very very sure it could possibly be passed down to our children one of my girls shows all the signs that I do. And it terrifies me for my child. I don’t want her to suffer from this. Good luck to you all and I pray one day soon someone will believe us and find a way to end or lessen our suffering.

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    1. I’ve been suffering from this “condition” my entire life (I can only assume since I don’t remember when it started) and I must agree that my symptoms match the majority of descriptions here. My observations also seem to point to genetics (from my mother’s side). Fear of passing this on to my future children has essentially convinced me not to have them out of moral principal. I pray it’s not genetic, but by the time researchers pinpoint the cause (possibly find a solution) it won’t matter anyway. I’m 35. I’ve been through all possible medical tests including psychological. If anyone here wants to help in getting to the bottom of this then don’t wait for doctors to come to you or look for sympathy from people who simply have no concept of what type of life you live and mental challenges you face – ever hear your friends say “yeah, I have the same thing” or “everyone has memory problems”?. Get out and look for answers even if it has to be through the process of elimination. Another symptom that has always been with me is the inability to chronologically organize events. Any “snapshots” of events that survive “the fade” just go into a big bucket and are recalled helter skelter. Memories of experiences typically disappear completely between 2-4 weeks. Cramming has allowed me to get through university and learn skills (motor skills stay, mental skills disappear as quickly as physical experiences though). Being open and getting to know people well is the only way of having a chance of remembering who they are, character-wise. Introverts with this condition will forget people significantly quicker and have the impression they have no-one to count on, eventually leading to depression. Be an extrovert – it’ll help overcome the psychological pressure and encourage friends and family to jog your memory. Just some pointers from “experience”. :P. Good luck to all of you, this is just the beginning!

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  5. So glad I am not alone in this.. my friends and family can’t understand why I don’t remember much, although I seem to remember events that were more traumatic in my past..

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  6. I feel I can’t remember anything in the past
    Childhood etc

    All is 90 % blank

    Even work and life. movies can’t remember Jack

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  7. I too have this same issue. I’m 45 and have never been able to remember anything that happened to me in my past. I suspect it may be from a not-so-great childhood (divorced parents, no love in our home, no role models, very stressful all through high school) and long term damage this did to my brain. Not being able to remember prevents me from really understanding what happened to me, and so this inability to remember anything has ruined my life in so many ways that I simply couldn’t begin to describe.
    By the time I returned from college, I came back to a giant void. Anything prior to the present day is also void. Just remembering what I did last week is very very difficult.

    I’ll add that even short term memory isn’t so great. For example, I simply cannot remember a string of numbers (say a telephone number) beyond the first 4 character. I’m terrified of my situation, and I’m very sorry for anyone else who has whatever I have.

    I am trying to do what the prior poster suggests in taking many many photos. unfortunately I can’t offer any words of encouragement to others beyond sharing my story.

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  8. Wow, glad i found this page, comfort in knowing i’m not the only one with this issue. I’ve noticed for me i can remember some things up to about 3 yrs, then it’s just not there. I’ve had to look at pictures to see where and what was going on in that year, that month, etc. So frustrating- wishing for little things like the first time i held my grandchildren (and i was at their births). Just can’t picture it in my mind at all. I used to blame a traumatic event that happened 30yrs ago or a bad childhood (over 50 yrs ago) but just don’t see how those things could cause this problem for so long.

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  9. I have the same thing, I cannot recall my past/childhood. I cannot recall my teen years, I’m 30 now I barely remember collage, I know my memory is ok bc I’m a doctor and have to retain a lot of info, but I cannot remember my life and before I didn’t care, but now I’m scared I’ll forget all the fun times life gives…

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  10. I at one time thought I was the only one with this issue. If it weren’t for photos and my wife telling me things I wouldn’t remember anything. Everything in my past is just a blur. I remember little bits and pieces. I had an awful childhood (raised in foster care) but I can’t recall any details. I spent 67-68-69 in Vietnam USMC yet I don’t remember any names not even a face. It appears I live in a constant present state.

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