Imagine living every day where you don't remember what happened an hour ago, nor anything that happened to you for all the time before that. Imagine that you can't remember your old friends, even relatives. Imagine that you can't remember what you decided to do anytime in the future.
Lonnie Sue Johnson, a former pilot, commercial artist, and musician, knows what that is like. As told in Michael Lemonick's new arresting new book about her life story, The Perpetual Now, Lonnie Sue experienced a catastrophic herpes simplex viral infection that spread into her brain, almost killed her, and left her with crippling memory failures after she survived. Normally, this virus just causes cold sores, but in a few cases the virus inflames and damages the brain. In Lonnie Sue's case, brain scans revealed that the virus destroyed the part of brain, the hippocampus, that forms past experiences (episodic memory) and general world knowledge (facts, ideas, meaning and concepts—semantic memory).
As she recovered from near death, which took many months, Lonnie Sue gradually recovered some old, well-established memories, like the ability to speak and understand English. She regained her ability to read sheet music and play the viola.
Her memory loss was similar to that of an epilepsy patient, Henry Molaison, known in the brain research literature as "H.M." before he recently died of old age. The seat of his severe epilepsy was the hippocampus, and surgeons removed it to cure the epilepsy before they knew about the devastating memory loss such surgery would cause. H.M. gladly volunteered for research on his memory loss for many years. Much of what we thought we knew about memory was learned from Henry. The standard model is that there are two kinds of memory, declarative (episodic and semantic) and procedural (motor memories like how to ride a bicycle, play a piano, and the like). The hippocampus is crucial for declarative memories but not procedural ones. At least that is what we thought. Lonnie Sue has revealed that the boundaries between declarative and procedural memories are fuzzy and maybe we don't understand memory as well as we thought.
The comparison with H.M. is not completely parallel. His memory limitations came from an otherwise healthy brain that no longer had a hippocampus. Lonnie Sue may well have had other brain damage than just the hippocampus.
Lonnie Sue, for example, lost many of her procedural memories, such as how to draw and fly a plane. But some of this ability gradually returned. All along she recognized herself in the mirror, and she recognized some old friends even though she couldn't recall anything about them.
Author Lemonick worked with Lonnie Sue and family for some three years as she recovered. His story paints a vivid picture of what life was like for Lonnie Sue and those who cared for her, particularly her devoted sister, Aline, who spent part of every day helping Lonnie Sue take care of herself and cope with the memory problems that never went away.
I admire Lemoncik's ability to explain complex issues of neuroscience in ways that are interesting and easy to understand. Readers will learn quite a bit about brain function from his user-friendly explanations. He even tells of recent studies under way of a very small group of apparently healthy people who have extraordinarily good memory. These people can tell you what happened on every day of their life. But they don't remember everything that happened. Their problem seems to be that certain events every day cannot be forgotten, even decades later. But the real message of the book is the power of love from those who care for Lonnie Sue and her own courage and cheerful spirit in the way she copes with her profound disability.
Lonnie Sue's story compels us to reflect thankfully on our own memory ability that we too often take for granted, with no thought of what life would be like without it. Her story reminds us that the memory of who we have been is an inevitable part of who we are now and who we strive to become. Our memories are not all pleasant, but life without memory of the past would surely be empty.
Lemonick, Michael D. (2016). The Perpetual Now. A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love. New York: Doubleday.