The role of context in remembering familar persons: Insights from semantic dementia

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Semantic dementia (SD) is a progressive condition characterized by an insidious and gradual breakdown in semantic knowledge. Patients suffering from this condition gradually lose their knowledge of objects and their attributes, concepts, famous persons, and public events. In contrast, these patients maintain a striking preservation of autobiographical memory. The aim of the present study was to examine in a patient suffering from SD the role of context in the ability to recall knowledge of familiar persons. In an experiment, patient J.M. was asked to name and identify familiar persons that appeared on family photographs from recent and remote periods of her life. In the first experimental condition, the pictures represented personally familiar persons present in a specific spatial and temporal context. In a second experimental condition, the pictures showed personally familiar persons who were presented without any specific episodic context. Results indicate that the patient was able to name and identify familiar persons irrespective of the context of presentation (with/without context) and of the time period (recent/remote). No temporal gradient was found using family photographs. Finally, in contrast with familiar persons, J.M. presented a severe anomia for celebrities. Results are discussed in light of recent research in the field.

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