Source Amnesia: Definition, Causes & Impact

Instructor: David White
Everyone experiences source amnesia from time to time, but how do you know whether or not it's a problem? Through this lesson, you will learn how to define source amnesia and explore some of its causes and consequences through examples.

What is Source Amnesia?

If you spend much time on social networking sites, you've probably noticed from time to time that someone will share something from a blog with a headline like 'rat found in man's cola bottle!' You're shocked and horrified by the story, but it also sounds strangely familiar to you, even though you can't remember why it's familiar. Given that you know you've heard this story somewhere before, it's not unreasonable to believe it's true and maybe even share it yourself within your own social network.

In this example, the reason that the story sounds true to you is because it's an urban legend that's been circulating for decades and you've likely heard it at some point. The problem, however, is that because you can't recall the source of the story, you're likely to believe it as fact rather than fiction. The inability to recall the source of the information is what's known as source amnesia. In cases of source amnesia, a person will remember the information or fact but they won't be able to remember where, when, or from whom they learned it.

With source amnesia a person can remember the information but not where it came from.

Source amnesia tends to affect a person's explicit memory, which is the type of memory that's used to actively recall day-to-day things like a friend's birthday or a dentist appointment. Unlike implicit memory, which is unconscious memory for things like riding a bike or speaking a language, explicit memory is intentional recollection for things like names or dates.

What Causes Source Amnesia?

Everyone experiences source amnesia from time to time and it's generally not something that one should worry about. Sometimes a long period of time has passed since we heard the information and we simply forget from where we learned it. This is believed to be a result of ineffective memory encoding, which is the way that experiences and memories get recorded in our brains. For example, if you casually read something in a magazine you might only store bits and pieces of the article because it doesn't seem important. If, on the other hand, you learned it in preparation for a public presentation, the circumstances will seem more serious and you are more likely to keep the memory.

When a person begins to experience it on a regular basis, however, it can be symptomatic of a more serious problem. In certain cases, source amnesia can be the result of head trauma. Because our brain's frontal lobe is responsible for our ability to make meaning of things and put memories in order, ongoing source amnesia could suggest that a person has experienced some kind of frontal lobe damage that is interfering with his or her explicit memory.

Another common cause of source amnesia might be schizophrenia, which is a mental illness that affects a person's ability to distinguish between reality and hallucinations, among other things. Because people with schizophrenia often have difficulty telling the difference between what's real and what's not, they can easily become confused about where they heard something from or what it means. In many cases, this can be particularly difficult because of other distortions of memory or sensory disruption.

There are many different causes for source amnesia, some more serious than others. When source amnesia occurs on a regular basis or becomes chronic, it suggests that there might be an emotional or neurological problem, which is cause for concern.

Why is Source Amnesia Important?

Because source amnesia can be a symptom of a more serious trauma or disorder, it is obviously significant in a clinical context, but that's not the only reason that it's significant. In many cases, it has the potential to cause the spread of misinformation, which is false or erroneous, and can have some serious consequences.

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