So I’m sitting in the movie theater the other day (I went to see The Lives of Others – go see it), and as soon as the first scene begins, the elderly lady sitting next to me says to herself: “Gosh darnit! I’ve already seen this movie! But it sounded so different when I read about it!”
When the movie was over, I struck up a conversation with the woman. It turns out that she read the description of the movie in the lobby and didn’t recognize any of the plot elements. However, as soon as she saw the face of the main character she instantly remembered having seen the movie a few weeks before. At that point, she was able to recall the names and motivations of the various characters, even though the plot of the movie still eluded her.
What fascinates me about this story is that it suggests a subdivision within episodic memory. The woman had no memory of the events that occurred within the movie (or any of the semantic concepts associated with the film), and yet she maintained a fairly astute recollection of all of the characters. She instantly recognized the people involved in the story, but couldn’t recognize the story itself.
The more I thought about it, the more this distinction made sense. Why wouldn’t the brain have a type of memory dedicated just to people? We are highly social animals, and much of our mental life is devoted to thinking about the behavior of others. It seems that we’d need a way to keep track of all of the “characters” in our life, independent of the events that the characters are involved in. I’d also wager that this type of “character-centric” memory is responsible for the fundamental attribution error.
Does anyone know of any neurological patients or experimental studies that have focused on this sort of “character memory”? Is there a case of somebody being unable to remember people, but able to remember everything else?