In A Perpetual Present
April 19, 2016 5:32 AM   Subscribe

This is terrific. Thanks.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2016

“I know bits and pieces of stuff that happened,” McKinnon says of her own childhood. But none of it bears a vivid, first-person stamp. “I don’t remember being shorter or smaller or having to reach up for things. I have no images or impressions of myself as a kid.”

This is pretty much me. I don't have her issues with imagining the future or making up stories, and I think my episodic memory is certainly better than McKinnon's, but it's probably in the bottom 5-10% of people. I have certain experiences and anecdotes "memorized" so that I can discuss them with family and friends, and I seem to remember the details of what I have done better than McKinnon (I can remember what activities I have done on vacations, for example) but I don't recall them with any kind of cinematic and/or emotional resonance. If I make an extreme effort I can remember people, things, events, but it's almost impossible to "visualize" or "replay" them. Like McKinnon, I really don't find it too much of a handicap - I certainly don't have anything to compare it to, so it's just what life is like to me.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:19 AM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, does this mean that P-zombies could be real?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:28 AM on April 19, 2016

This raises so many questions for me.

For McKinnon, the memory doesn’t trigger the trauma and fear associated with it. “I can imagine being upset and scared, but I don’t remember that at all,” she says. “I can’t put myself back there. I can only imagine what it would have been like.”

Okay, but what does that mean? How can you imagine being afraid if you have no memory of what being afraid involves? What does she think being afraid would be like, and on what does she base that belief?

Fascinating article!
posted by Naberius at 6:43 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

super interesting - thank you!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:52 AM on April 19, 2016

Great read. I am fascinated by memory - especially the compartmentalization of different types of memories. Things like people remembering how to play sonatas even as their other memories are lost to them.

I feel like I may have a pretty bad short-term memory, and I dread it getting worse as I grow older. I remember once being into the Cambridge Brain Sciences tests (, and consistently scoring very poorly on the one where you click squares on a grid in order, which was supposed to be a test for short-term and spatial memory. They kindly put it as me being in the "top 95%".
posted by one of these days at 7:00 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to figure out how to talk about this article, and every thought I have leads further and further down the rabbit hole. Episodic memory is such a big part of what makes up a "self" that I really can't imagine life like this.

And although the article does describe her as having preferences, hobbies, a sense of self, that she can look at old pictures and feel like she's viewing someone else's experience belies that, to an extent. Sure, she has a concept of herself in any given moment, but if that's not accompanied by a perseverant self that comes from somewhere and is ultimately headed somewhere, it's so alien to the usual concept as to, maybe, be something different.

Since she does have a good semantic memory, does that mean her personality is, more or less, the product of what she's learned about herself rather than what she's experienced? And how does she learn about herself? From what others tell her?

It's really hard to wrap my mind around this, because it's obviously a lot more complex than can be presented in a short Wired article. (I haven't read it yet, but the "April 2015" article referenced is actually from June 2015, I think.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:04 AM on April 19, 2016

She has no episodic memories—none of those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie, always filmed from your perspective.

This also seems foreign to me, and I can't decide if it says something about me or if it's just a hokey and not very accurate way of describing episodic memory.
posted by AndrewInDC at 7:06 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oddly enough, my younger brother, who is going through a rough patch right now and is in therapy, texted me about our Dad's leaving the family back in the 80s. He doesn't remember a lot of it, which I don't consider all that weird, since he was 13 (I was 17) at the time, and who remembers really specific details about their teenage years? But he's fixated on the fact that he didn't remember that our Mom went to Disney World with us for one vacation, while our Dad took us on a second that didn't include her. "Who doesn't remember if their mother went to Disney World with them?" he asked. I told him I hadn't remembered until he asked me, because it isn't something I'd thought of, and I had to think back to even remember if we'd gone twice.

Memory is just a fascinating subject. How much of it is "real," and how much of it is just us telling stories to ourselves?
posted by xingcat at 7:47 AM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie, always filmed from your perspective

That jumped out at me too. Do people really see this in their memory? I can recreate in my mind a place or an event and especially speech or music, but it's far more abstract than this. I would think if I was essentially watching a movie my eyes recorded I'd get very confused about what was real and what was a memory. Probably I'm misunderstanding this.

This is very fascinating. First there's:
She knew that other people claimed to have detailed memories, but she always thought they embellished and made stuff up—just like she did.
But she cannot for the life of her make up a story. ..... She cannot fit the images together into a finished puzzle.

It seems like it'd be impossible to embellish a story based on a few details if you couldn't string a few imagined images together in your head. So she can fill in the blanks on facts she knows are true, but aren't actually memories but she can't make up a story from nothing?
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 7:56 AM on April 19, 2016

I think I had a bit of an easier time thinking about this because I briefly worked in a lab focused on episodic memory and how it worked in college. To me, it wasn't surprising that she had a self and opinions about things even without any episodic memory.. because episodic memory doesn't include our memory of things like facts about the world or our understanding of the world. It's limited to the ability to recall events, especially if you weren't specifically trying to memorize them as facts at the time. (Modeling this in rats was... difficult, as I recall, because it's not like you can ask a rat what it had for breakfast the morning prior.)

So by not having episodic memory, it's not like you can't develop associations between that one person there and your past experiences of laughing with them all the time, because you're friends. It's not like you can't remember that you believe that economic policy A is likely to lead to greater income inequality because of the other things you know about the economy, and you also can remember just fine what you think about that outcome. You can remember what you believe just fine without a mental play-by-play of the incidents that caused you to form those beliefs. How many memories do you have of learning to read? (Not "do you remember learning to read," you understand. But do you need to have access to an episodic memory of every single time you practiced learning to read, or learning to ride a bike, to develop those skills?)

It's actually a bit of information that has come in seriously handy when talking to friends who have been gaslit about abuse a lot in the past, especially if they know how easy it is to induce an artificial memory and are worried they've just made up everything that's happened to them. It is indeed really easy to induce an artificial episodic memory of something that didn't happen... but it's harder to induce artificial semantic memories, because those are artifacts of practice learning things, either by rote or as a result of pairing emotions with stimuli. So if you feel like shit about someone, even if you're not sure exactly why or you don't trust your own memories of why, that's actually a pretty trustworthy memory to rely on.
posted by sciatrix at 8:00 AM on April 19, 2016 [29 favorites]

Basically, the example that gets brought up a lot to explain episodic memory is "Do you remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday?" That's because it's a single, low-salience event, so not something you rehearse or expect to memorize, and you're not likely to have memorized a mental story on hand that you can pull out and refer to. Reconstructing it from principles you know about yourself isn't episodic memory, but saying "Oh, I felt like eggs that day" is, especially if you eat a bunch of different things for breakfast on different days. (Contrast that with "Hm... I always eat eggs on Tuesdays, except when they've gone off, but I know I have eggs on hand right now. So I think it was eggs.") It's also something that happened about 24 hours ago, which is well outside the bounds of short-term memory and into the realm of long-term memory.
posted by sciatrix at 8:06 AM on April 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Okay, I've had a chance to read the journal article, and it seems that their findings suggest that this deficiency is related to the ability to process visual memories, based both on task performance and on imaging (to put it simply). They suggest that people with this sort of autobiographical memory deficit use non-visual mnemonic techniques to enhance their recall -- auditory rehearsal, for example -- and that their memory for auditory cues is normal.

We know that Susie McKinnon is a singer, but we don't know what her auditory memory is actually like. We know that she can remember melodies and lyrics (semantic memories), but does music prompt episodic memories? I can tell you, certainly in the last few weeks, where I was and what I was doing when I heard pretty much any snippet of music (e.g., if I hear the first chorus of "Do You Wanna Get High" from the new Weezer record, I can tell you that the last time I heard it was Friday afternoon when I was exiting the highway and pulling up to a red light), but probably not the other way around (i.e., if you asked me what I was doing on Friday at 4:56pm I could only guess that I was driving home from work). Can Susie do this? Does it go back further than average?
posted by uncleozzy at 8:10 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is scent memory stored as semantic or episodic memory? There's "oh that smells like tomatoes" and then there's "that's the perfume my grandmother always wore, I didn't realize they still made it." I really want to know if she remembers the first but not the second, as scents can (only occasionally, but they can) trigger really vivid impressions and memories. Right after my dad died, I remember spending some time lying in his bed because it still smelled like him. Of course remembering that this happened to me in the first place is also a form of episodic memory.

Also, I do have to envy her, because it feels like she is someone who is completely immune to existential dread, the feeling that creeps up on many of us from time to time and reminds us that we are mortal.
posted by Hactar at 8:20 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Although I suppose the question I'm asking about auditory cues and episodic memory requires that some kind of episodic memory be encoded in the first place, and that the failure is in recall, which is probably not the case, so...)
posted by uncleozzy at 8:31 AM on April 19, 2016

I have something sort of like this where I look at older photos of myself but I can't perceive that I'm the person in the photos. Obviously I looked different then (I'm trans) but I should still feel some connection to my old self, right? Yet it's like looking at a different person's life. I feel the same when I get mail addressed to my old name. I know semantically that it used to be my name but it feels like it's a different person, possibly a relative or stranger with the same last name.
posted by AFABulous at 10:20 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Isn't it nuts how different people's memories work? My wife and I recently ran an errand at a neighborhood store. I had a vague memory of having gone into the store once before. My wife remembered exactly what we bought, how much it cost, a friend who had come with us, the store owners' name, and the name of the store owners dog. We had been there for maybe 5 minutes over 18 months ago.
posted by miyabo at 10:22 AM on April 19, 2016

Let alone who said what when.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:42 AM on April 19, 2016

who remembers really specific details about their teenage years?

I do. In great detail. Not necessarily specific dates (though I can generally figure it out), but events, people, etc. I remember very easily. My parents are generally surprised at how I have no memory of one specific anecdote from kindergarten simply because it is about the only event I can't at least somewhat recall.

They say you don't remember events as much as you remember your recollections of the events. And I supposed that it's possible that I just replay events of my past over and over again in my head, which is how I have such a consistent recall.

. You can remember what you believe just fine without a mental play-by-play of the incidents that caused you to form those beliefs.

I think this is the explanation for how McKinnon has a "sense of self" and by all accounts is a fairly normal person: she learns things and makes conclusions just like anyone else. If she had a bad relationship with her husband, she would have decided she didn't like him... she has fights sometimes with her husband, like anyone does, but it's not that she doesn't learn from them. She does-- it's just that, like anyone else, she learns that she still loves him, even if she doesn't remember the specific incidents that caused her to draw these conclusions. She internalizes things, even if she doesn't remember the events.
posted by deanc at 5:55 PM on April 19, 2016

IANA Scientist, but for decades have had an amateur's interest in All Things related to how the brain works. What makes us Us is fascinating. And of course, as with brain injuries or Alzheimer's, any lapse from reasonably full functioning is so scary.

This article skimps on details of the testing they've done (vague references to reduced activities in parts of the brain). But many events are "fixed" into permanent memory by strong emotions and sensations, no? It's all tied into the limbic system? With her situation, it just feels as if there's some tantalizing small function missing, some chemical that fails to transmit at just the right moment.

BTW I find it very odd that no one close to her EVER picked up on this startling fact about her. And also, what disturbing article illustrations.
posted by NorthernLite at 8:58 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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