Meet the Woman Who Can't Remember Her Life

Susie McKinnon has a rare condition
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 17, 2016 7:59 AM CDT
Meet the Woman Who Can't Remember Her Life
   (Meta via AP)

Susie McKinnon lives in the present. The 60-year-old from Olympia, Wash., has no choice. She lacks the ability to form episodic memories—"those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie." In a lengthy piece in Wired, Erika Hayasaki compares memory to a favorite book that you return to often. "Now imagine having access only to the index. Or the Wikipedia entry." McKinnon is the first person to be diagnosed with severely deficient autobiographical memory. She knows things about her life—she's married, for instance—but she can't mentally relive memories. Seeing photos of her wedding, McKinnon tells Hayasaki, is like looking at someone else's. As for her childhood: "I know bits and pieces of stuff that happened." Often, Hayasaki writes, McKinnon fills in the details by making guesses, such as assuming that the weather was hot during a trip to the Cayman Islands she and her husband took "probably sometime between 2000 and 2010."

McKinnon was in high school in 1977 when she began to realize her memory was different than that of most people. In 2006, prompted by a magazine article, McKinnon contacted researcher Brian Levine. She, along with two men with the same condition, was the subject of a study Levine published in 2015. "It raises fairly large questions," he says. "What exactly does recollection do for us?" McKinnon is lucky, Hayasaki writes. There are no traumatic memories, and she can't hold a grudge. But she doesn't daydream, and she can't think more than one move ahead. "Most of us experience life as a story of gain and loss," Hayasaki writes. But for McKinnon, "There is no inciting incident. No conflict. And no anxious sense of momentum toward the finale." Read the whole fascinating story here. (Read more memory stories.)

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