Retrograde amnesia - the strange case of Jonathan Overfeld

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A man takes a seat on a park bench in Hamburg, Germany. He then realises that he doesn’t remember anything: not where he is, how he got there, or even who he is.


After drugs and alcohol were ruled out in Jonathan Overfeld’s case, he was referred to Dr Hans Markowitsch.

Dr Markowitsch is a psychology professor at the Bielefeld University and a researcher into how human memory works. He’s been trying for years to answer one big question: what exactly is happening when our memory doesn’t function properly?
Jonathan is still able to do certain things, like play the piano. He can read the newspaper and understand it. He can recall the colour of his favourite packet of cigarettes. But he doesn’t know who he is.
[media:image]Out-of-sync memory
Dr Markowitsch’s hypothesis is that memories, especially personal memories, come from two sources that need to synchronized with each other: “fact memory” (content) and “emotional memory” (evaluation).
When stressful situations and/or psychological trauma occur, the two systems can’t synchronize. The emotional and factual memory systems become separated. That’s why someone like Jonathan can remember what a chair is, but nothing about himself.
About a century ago, this phenomenon was called la belle indifférence – meaning that the patients face their memory loss indifferently. Most people can’t bear the thought of losing their memory. But without the emotional content of their own memories accessible to them, amnesiacs like Jonathan tend to be somewhat apathetic about finding out more about themselves.
Jonathan was tested using a nuclear medical screening procedure. The results showed a biochemical abnormality within the part of his brain believed to be responsible for autobiographical memory.
Emotional distress
According to Dr Markowitsch, the brain doesn’t forget. It keeps memories in drawers. In situations of danger or emotional distress, stress hormones can lock these drawers – sometimes forever. There’s no telling when, or even if, they’ll be re-activated.
Historically, psychoanalysts have said that people with amnesia subconsciously don’t want to remember, while brain researchers say they simply can’t. If Dr Markowitsch is right, the condition is a combination of both.
This story was taken from the latest edition of The State We're In - Happy anyway