Lonni Sue Johnson’s amnesia leaves her marooned in the present

Daniel Zalewski, for The New Yorker:

[Lonni Sue Johnson’s] “temporal window”—the period of time that she can reliably keep track of—slams shut after only a minute or two. If something distracts Johnson, her mental continuity can last a few seconds. As Aline put it, Johnson “flosses her teeth, washes her hands, and says, ‘What do you want me to do next—floss my teeth?’ ” Sometimes, mid-conversation, you can see a mental hyperlink break, as Johnson’s eyes start darting, covertly seeking orientation. Her life is an endless series of jump cuts. In our age of pinging distractions, people often express a desire to “be present,” but Johnson belies such sentimentality. She is marooned in the present.

Even this doesn’t fully capture the lonely oddity of Johnson’s sense of time. “We tend to assume that she experiences life the same way as the rest of us do, from moment to moment, and just doesn’t store anything,” Turk-Browne told me. “This assumption seems wrong. It underestimates the role of memory in perception—our ongoing experience is always being informed by the past.”

Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat first introduced me to this peculiar brand of memory loss. Johnson’s tale is both fascinating and horrifying. Well, maybe horrifying for the casual onlooker. But it’s a “dark gift” for researchers, and for Johnson herself, time nothing more than a narrow window that moves with her through life, and ignorance is bliss.