A recent interview with Washington-based Susie McKinnon, by all accounts a normal middle-aged woman, revealed something special about her memory – namely, that she didn’t have one.

At least, not in the way we are typically familiar. McKinnon met with University of Toronto’s Endel Tulving, a researcher who originally characterised the difference between episodic and semantic memory. Through his research, Tulving found that memory isn’t just the ability to recall facts, but is an interrelation between being able to recall information about what happened and being able to imagine oneself in those memories, almost like a first-person film reel. McKinnon discovered it was this latter part of memory, episodic memory, that she lacked.

Psychology students may be familiar with these differences in memory, but it is useful to understand what this case means for our understanding of the brain and of what it means to live a fulfilled life. People with neurological damage or amnesia are often seen as deficient in some quality of life, by having memories removed. For McKinnon, on the other hand, she had a firm grasp on her sense of self and what had happened in her life. She simply lacked the ability to imagine or recall herself in memories, and could not feel or recall the way her memories made her feel.

Law applicants should consider how memory intersects with eye-witness testimony, and how much of this episodic memory is created by associated feelings and sentiments rather than an objective recollection of facts. For further reading, Psychology, Biological Sciences and HSPS applicants interested in psychological behavioural patterns should read the work of Oliver Sacks which largely focuses on case studies with different brain aphasia.

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