Knowing "what" and knowing "when"

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2006 Jan;28(1):43-66. doi: 10.1080/13803390490919344.


The ability to situate autobiographical memories accurately in the "time-line" of one's own life is a particular aspect of retrograde memory that has received little attention in well-controlled, systematic studies. Here, we addressed this issue by testing the hypothesis that patients with basal forebrain damage would be impaired in their ability to place various autobiographical memories accurately on a 'time-line' of their life. Seven such subjects were contrasted with 11 medial temporal lobe subjects, 8 brain-damaged comparison subjects, and 18 normal comparison subjects, using a procedure in which subjects placed autobiographical events on a time-line of their life. The basal forebrain group was very impaired in this task, relative to the other groups, and on average, misplaced events by more than five years. Although the basal forebrain group was also impaired in retrieving the contents of autobiographical memory, they did not differ statistically from the medial temporal lobe group in this regard (and the medial temporal lobe group did not have impaired time placement of memories). The results indicate an intriguing dissociation between "knowing what" and "knowing when," and suggest that the basal forebrain contains structures that are especially important for "knowing when." Our findings are compatible with the view that the basal forebrain participates critically in retrieval strategies important for memory chronology, which contrasts with the medial temporal lobe's critical role in relational memory per se.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Amnesia, Retrograde / physiopathology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Autobiographies as Topic
  • Brain Injuries / pathology
  • Brain Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Demography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Prosencephalon / physiopathology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Temporal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Verbal Learning / physiology