The man who woke up from a coma with memories of another person's life

Neurological Mystery Persists: How Does Memory Work?

Most of the time, when memory conflicts with reality, it's in the little things: Your keys are somehow on the floor even though you know you left them on the table. Or your friend insists she's on time when she shows up at 9, even though you definitely agreed on 8:30.

But every so often, memory and reality collide in bigger, more dramatic ways. In a 2015 study, for example, psychologists managed to convince people they'd committed serious crimes as teenagers, getting them to recall details like the weapon they used. Eyewitnesses, similarly, can be prodded into describing, and believing, things they didn't actually see. And in the Boston Globe this week, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie tells the story of a British man named Alpha Kabeja, who came out of a coma with clear recollection of memories of things that had never happened.

Kabeja, McRobbie writes, was biking, when he was hit by a van with enough force to knock his brain out of place inside his skull. When he came out of a medically induced coma three weeks later, McRobbie writes, "doctors told his family he might not remember anything from before the accident, or remember them or who he was, that he might have amnesia." But Kabeja woke up full of memories:

The only problem: None of those things were true. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Kabeja clung to his new memories, and his family and friends played along. But there was no pregnancy. There was no private plane. There was no job interview, which Kabeja realized only after he called MI6 and learned their offices had been closed the day of the accident.

But the "memories" weren't totally fantastical — related things had been happening in Kabeja's life before the accident, leading him to believe that his subconscious had twisted real pieces of information into new forms:

In that sense, McRobbie argues, Kabeja's brain was simply going a step further than ours do, every day, when we recall a piece of the past. No autobiographical memory is a fixed, literal record of what really happened; memories are malleable, morphing each time we call them forth, to accommodate new information stored elsewhere in the brain. Sometimes, this means small tweaks; other times, it means we're left with recollections that others might see as outright fabrications. Even people with extraordinary capacities for recall, research has shown, are prone to inadvertently making things up.

Kabeja's false memories then, may have been an attempt to make sense of the long gap when he was unconscious in the hospital — without any real autobiographical memories of that stretch of time, his brain may have simply pulled other memories from elsewhere to fill in the lost weeks. "When you wake up, your brain is trying to reconnect pieces because your brain is trying to recover that sense of you, that sense of memory, that sense of history," Julia Shaw, a memory researcher at London South Bank University, told the Globe. "And in that process of recovery and essentially healing, you can make connections in ways that are fantastical and impossible" — but not so far removed from memory as we might like to think.

RELATED: Memory loss -- what to look for:

Memory loss -- what to look for
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Memory loss -- what to look for

1. You forget how to do something you have done many times before. Forgetting how to get to your best friend’s house, or struggling to remember how to make your favorite meal can be a tip off to a real problem.

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2. You have trouble learning something new. Electronics, computers or card games used to come easy to you, and now, you can’t figure out how to start the new toaster. You used to be handy, and now, you can’t figure out how to put together one of your children or grandchildren’s Christmas presents.

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3. You repeat yourself in the same conversation. I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is tuning me out.  It can be very frustrating to both the speaker and the listener as it is tempting to say, “Stop talking. You told me this already and if I have to hear about your work-out this routine one more time, someone is going to get hurt!!!”  I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is probably tuning me out.

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4. You are having trouble making choices. You stare in the fridge trying to decide what to drink, or you stare at the closet with no idea what to wear. This may be a red flag if it is happening routinely.

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5. You can’t keep track of what happens in a day. If you are having an increasingly difficult time remembering if you showered, took out the garbage or went to the food store, you should discuss your concerns with your doctor.

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I started each of these warning signs with “you”, but most often, if there is a true diagnosable problem, it will be a friend or family member who will notice first.  If someone else tells you that you are losing it — hopefully, they find a more sensitive way to say it — you should probably take it seriously.
If you have a loved one whose memory seems to be failing, bite the bullet and tell them you are worried. There are many things that can cause memory loss in addition to dementia, some of which are correctable. There are also treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that can help to halt the progression of the disease. If you noticed someone was short of breath or was clutching at his or her chest, you would address it. The brain is an organ just like the heart and lungs. It needs to be taken care of.

Speaking of letting people know you are worried about them, I am offering $500 bucks to anyone who tips me off about my intervention.

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ER physician Dr. Travis Stork shares a simple trick to improve your memory recall.

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