Retrograde Amnesia and Memory Recovery

According to Hunkin, Parkin, Bradley, Burrows, Aldrick, Jansari, and Burdon-Cooper (1995), retrograde amnesia is a loss of memory-access to events that occurred, or information that was learned, before an injury, or the onset of a disease. It can occur without any anatomical damage to the brain, therefore lack an observable neurobiological basis (Stanilou, Markowitsch, & Brand, 2010). It may be that the normal biological processes underlying information storage is disrupted by the traumatic events. It may even resemble what happens during an alcohol-induced “blackout.”

I had a terrible traffic accident when I was thirteen years old, smashing my face into the back end of a parked station wagon while on my bicycle. I broke my jaw and nose—and was told that if I had impacted one half an inch higher, I would have died instantly. I had an almost total loss of all memory from the age of the accident until I was forty-seven years old, when, after an initial flashback to a traumatic memory from age three, the entire panoply of memory from birth to age fourteen was revealed.

I consider my own experience to be somewhat unusual, in that mine was both physical and psychogenic. Some part of my reaction may have been couched in my lifelong sense of self-depreciation, and led to the development of a substance abuse history of some decades. It has always only been my ability to alter my state of consciousness that fed my desire to remember. I have lived my life feeling as if I were carrying a huge burden to be released. I have called it a “negative vision,” in contradistinction to a “positive vision” by which one is driven to pursue some more enriching activity to make more of oneself somehow. I have always sought to remember my earliest origins as part of my quest to develop self-esteem from the outside in, as it were.

State Dependence

Information that is dissociated may be held in state-dependent consciousness, about which Butler et al. (1996) have commented, “Memories of traumatic events are encoded in an altered state of consciousness that is hypnotic-like, placing them beyond the reach of normal retrieval when the person is no longer in that state” (p. 57). Wolinsky (1991) states, “Deep Trance Phenomena initially occur in a specific context―an environment external to the person, that itself has specific environmental characteristics” (p. 136). The learning from these experiences is dependent upon the circumstances in which it occurred. Wolinsky (1991) stated, “Deep Trance Phenomena initially occur in a specific context―an environment external to the person, that itself has specific environmental characteristics” (p. 136).

Putnam (1989b) stated that “the amnesias that separate dissociative states from normal consciousness are an extreme form of state-dependent memory retrieval” (p. 423). Thus one may, in effect, not allow oneself to live in the present because one is “stuck” in a feedback loop that constantly draws one to the utilization of one’s past behaviors, and defense mechanisms related to state-dependent material.

In a similar manner, Putnam (1989a) stated that the alter personalities of Dissociative Identity Disorder are “highly discrete states of consciousness organized around a prevailing affect, sense of self (including body image), with a limited repertoire of behaviors and a set of dependent memories” (p. 103). In this extreme instance, state-dependent memories are so highly organized that they actually constitute another personality, albeit dissociated.

© 2016 – Stefan J. Malecek, Ph.D., MAC