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Albuquerque Journal - Parade - - PICKS - By Mar­i­lyn vos Sa­vant

When peo­ple have am­ne­sia and lose mem­o­ries of the past, in­clud­ing what their spouses look like or even the fact that they’re mar­ried at all, how can they still speak and un­der­stand a lan­guage?

—Bruce B., Las Ve­gas, Nev. Am­ne­sia is a rare phe­nom­e­non, but it can oc­cur in many forms, de­pend­ing on what caused it—a stroke, a head in­jury (even mild con­cus­sions may cause mem­ory loss), a tu­mor, a disease, al­co­hol or drug abuse, a ter­ri­ble shock, etc. Cer­tain med­i­ca­tions may also cause am­ne­sia. In the great ma­jor­ity of these cases, suf­fer­ers for­get masses of facts, such as in­for­ma­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences, but their self-aware­ness and per­son­al­i­ties re­main in­tact, and they don’t for­get skills they learned, in­clud­ing speak­ing a lan­guage, rid­ing a bi­cy­cle or play­ing an in­stru­ment.

Many fa­mous cases ex­ist. For ex­am­ple, a Bri­tish con­duc­tor and mu­si­cian con­tracted a brain in­fec­tion at the age of 47 and was left with a mem­ory of only a few sec­onds (an ex­treme case of per­ma­nent am­ne­sia), but at the age of 73, he could still read mu­sic and play the pi­ano. To gen­er­al­ize, we might say that am­ne­si­acs may for­get “what” but not “how.”

The term "am­ne­sia" also refers to the loss of abil­ity to form new mem­o­ries, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to learn. This is a more com­mon type of am­ne­sia than the in­abil­ity to re­trieve past mem­o­ries. Send ques­tions to

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