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A new Hopkins study may shift conventional thinking about memory

How a woman with severe amnesia is helping Science of Learning Institute researchers discover a new type of memory
Posted June 28, 2016

She can't remember her marriage, but Lonni Sue Johnson can tell you how to fly a plane

An illustration by artist Lonni Sue Johnson made during her ongoing recovery. An illustration by artist Lonni Sue Johnson made during her ongoing recovery.

Lonni Sue Johnson doesn't remember the scientists she's been working with over the past few years. She doesn't remember whether or not she was ever married. She doesn't remember what happened just a few minutes ago. But the odd things she does remember have had scientists puzzled — and may shift conventional thinking about memory.

Johnson was an amateur violist, a licensed single-engine airplane pilot, and an accomplished illustrator working for the likes of the New Yorker. But in 2007, viral encephalitis damaged her brain and completely wiped out her hippocampus, a brain structure crucial for forming and recalling memories.

Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor of Cognitive Science in the Krieger School and director of the Science of Learning Institute, and her Johns Hopkins colleagues who have been working with Johnson for a couple of years, picked up on this peculiar pattern of memory.

In a new study of Johnson’s case, published online in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology, Landau and her team examine Johnson's ability to remember facts related to performing her skills. The case suggests there is a special category of knowledge within the memory system that has previously been mostly neglected.

"This type of knowledge is not the skill itself; it's not the ability to bow the violin. It’s the knowledge that goes along with those skills," says Michael McCloskey, a cognitive scientist who worked on Johnson's case and a co-author of the new study. "When you learn to play tennis or music, you also need information beyond just muscle memory. We are suggesting we may need a reorientation in the way we think about declarative knowledge versus skill and recognize that skill is not out there by itself."