Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Life in the Third Person

By Tim Hannan

People with severely deficient autobiographical memory do not re-experience their past.

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Implausible forms of amnesia are popular fodder for Hollywood, with movies such as Dead Again, The Long Kiss Goodnight and the Jason Bourne series all featuring characters who, despite possessing a full understanding of the workings of the world, display an almost complete inability to recall any personal information. Such a condition has never been documented by clinicians, and the notion of a selective, total amnesia for autobiographical amnesia has generally been assumed to be impossible.

However, a recent study has reported what appears to be a milder form of the fictional amnesia in several individuals with a specific inability to relive personal experiences despite retaining otherwise average memory and general knowledge of the world. In this condition, termed “severely deficient autobiographical memory”, recollections are based solely on factual, non-personal knowledge, or as one author put it, the individual is obliged to “live life in the third person”.

The main features of human memory functioning were identified in the 1980s, with the delineation of several memory systems mediated by diverse regions of the brain.

  • The implicit memory system enables the acquisition and performance of motor skills such as riding a bicycle, and is associated with the basal ganglia, motor cortex and cerebellum.
  • Semantic memory is one’s store of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.