The life of an amnesiac


In the New Yorker, my friend Dan Zalewski reports on Lonni Sue Johnson, a 64-year-old with profound amnesia—and new research into how her brain, and memory, works.

The piece is filled with fascinating meditations on how memory works, not just in the mind of a deep amnesiac, but in typical brains.

Here's one of my favorite passages, in which Johnson and her sister Aline—who helps Johnson navigate daily life—visit the lab of neuroscientist Nicholas Turk-Browne:

The first time that Turk-Browne met the Johnson sisters, in the parking lot outside the laboratory, it took him a little while before he could tell which woman had amnesia. Johnson chats brightly about the weather, and at a family lunch she politely requests more fruit salad. Because Aline supplies a daily schedule as unobtrusively as a personal assistant, Johnson can seem like an executive gliding through a series of meetings. From moment to moment, she basically knows what to do. Our personal memories seem so essential that one might expect to be paralyzed without them. But our waking life may involve less conscious reflection than we suppose. In 1999, the psychologists John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand published a paper, "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being," arguing that our default state is reacting to the latest stimuli. We adopt the roles that our immediate environment provokes. Studies indicate that people are more attentive observers when wearing a lab coat; a taxi-driver's surliness arouses a mirroring anger in ourselves. Because so much of our behavior is not mindful, it isn't really stored away. After a busy workweek, we can't recall locking the front door or what we hummed while washing our hair. Maggi told me that when she asks Lonni Sue, "How was your day today?," she says, "I have to look at my schedule." This is extreme, but all of us have noticed a novel on our bookshelf and realized that we can't recall reading it, let alone its plot. This may explain why forgetfulness seldom dismays Johnson: it is an ingrained state of being.

That striking photo of Lonni Sue Johnson is by Phillip Toledano, whose pictures illustrate the piece.