Published November 10, 2011
A study showed an amnesiac remembers a celebrity the rest of us forgot about.
The study, at Baycrest’s Rotman Institute in Toronto, Canada, features “HC,” a 22-year-old woman who has amnesia, and proves that retaining information that is ‘familiar’ is easier than retaining information that is ‘unfamiliar,’ according to scientists.
HC has amnesia due to a reduced hippocampus – its volume is half that of a normal person – because of a lack of oxygen during her first week of life.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in forming memories.
HC, a self-proclaimed entertainment buff, was unable to place Clinton, despite the politician’s fame, because she does not ‘know’ of her.
HC is a “relatively normal-functioning college graduate” who enjoys watching movies and celebrities. The study’s lead investigator, Nathan Rose, a post-doctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience at the Institute, said HC is a good sport about the study.
The Institute’s finding is considered important in understanding the distinct workings of short-term memory in people with memory disorders. The study proves that an amnesiac’s lack of short-term memory becomes apparent when trying to recall new, ‘unfamiliar’ information. But, ‘familiar’ and repetitive information can be more easily retained.
“We wanted to test if HC’s short-term memory was impaired and, if so, whether this impairment only existed for novel stimuli,” Rose said. “That is exactly what we found.”
The Institute is working in collaboration with the University of Toronto. The study is published online in the journal Neuropsychologia, ahead of its print publication.
“Our findings add to the growing evidence that short-term memory is not intact in amnesia. However, to my knowledge, we are the first to directly test the hypothesis that short-term memory functions better if the information has some past familiarity to the person,” added Dr. Fergus Craik, a collaborator on the study and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Memory.
HC, along with a control group of 20 college students, were shown 40 famous faces and 40 faces that were not famous. After a short time, they were asked to recognize them. HC had more difficulty than her peers recognizing the ‘unfamiliar,’ or non-famous faces. She scored 85 percent in recognition of famous faces, which was the same as the control group.
And HC scored the highest when asked to recall faces she was most familiar with, like Hilton’s.