There is much that researchers and scientists don’t know about the brain. Storing memories, creating new ones and being able to learn are areas of neuroscience that continue to intrigue professionals. In that way there is much that Lonni Sue Johnson can teach those who study the brain.
In 2007 she suffered a bout of viral encephalitis which seriously damaged the hippocampus. That is the part of the brain that is responsible for forming new memories and retrieving old ones. Before her illness she was an expert in art history and yet after her illness she could no longer recognize famous artists like Van Gogh and Monet. Despite this, she still the ability to mix watercolors on a palette and combine them to achieve very specific results in color and texture.
She was also an accomplished musician and could identify the composer of a piece after hearing just a few notes. She can no longer recall any of that, but yet she knows intricate details of the different parts of musical instruments and how they work. At one time she could fly her own plane, but no longer remembers any of her trips. She can, however, describe the exact steps a pilot must take to avoid stalling an aircraft. It’s these gaps in memory and knowledge that have led scientists at Johns Hopkins to question conventional wisdom on how the brain works in regards to memory and learning.
Up until recently neuroscientists separated what is referred to as “declarative knowledge” or knowledge of facts from the kind of memory that is responsible for skills, sometimes called muscle memory. A person suffering from amnesia might remember how to throw a ball, but likely wouldn’t remember details about baseball teams or who won the World Series. More complex skills however, like flying a plane go beyond basic abilities and the experience of Lonni Sue showed researchers that memory is much more complex than previously thought.
Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins said in a press release, “There is such a contrast between her not being able to tell us anything about her former life and not being able to tell us anything about many aspects of art and music that she once knew well, but when we ask her to tell us how to do a watercolor, she is articulate and full of detail. How can you talk about this knowledge of “how to” as distinct from declarative knowledge? It is declarative knowledge.” A paper on what researchers learned about memory is due to appear in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology.
Lonni Sue's memory is severely impacted; she forgets facts almost immediately after being made aware of them and has extreme difficulty remembering words and yet has retained other memories as well as specific knowledge of art, musical instruments and avionics. The team at Johns Hopkins wanted to determine the level of Johnson’s retained skill memory in contrast to her extreme loss of memory in other areas. They tested her on facts related to music art and flying and gave the same tests to healthy individuals with knowledge of the same topics. There was also a control group of healthy individuals with no experience in these areas.
The test consisted of about 80 questions in the areas Johnson had been proficient in before her illness. In art and driving, Johnson scored nearly as high as those with experience taking the test. In music and aviation, she did not perform as well, but knew considerably more than those with no experience. The results showed that skill related memory is most definitely separate from factual memory and can persist even after serious illness or injury to the brain. The video below explains more.
Sources: Johns Hopkins The New Yorker