Source Amnesia: Definition, Causes, Diagnosis And Prevention.

The amnesia source is the inability to remember where, when or how you acquired the previously acquired information at the time the factual knowledge is preserved. This branch of amnesia is associated with the malfunction of explicit memory , it is likely that the disconnection between having knowledge and remembering the context in which it was acquired is due to a dissociation between semantic and episodic memory . An individual retains semantic knowledge (the fact), but lacks the episodic knowledge to indicate the context in which the knowledge was obtained. 

Memory representations reflect the encoding processes during acquisition. Different types of processes and events will produce perceptually different mental representations in the brain, making it more difficult to retrieve where the learned information was when placed in a different retrieval context.

Source monitoring involves a systematic process of slow and deliberate thinking about where the information was originally learned. Monitoring can be improved by using more recovery keys, discovering and observing extended reasoning and relationships.

Causes of source amnesia

We all experience root amnesia from time to time and it is generally not something one needs to worry about. Sometimes it has been a long period of time since we heard the information and we simply forget where we learned it from. This is believed to be the result of ineffective memory encoding, which is the way experiences and memories are recorded in our brains.

However, when a person begins to experience it regularly, it can be a symptom of a more serious problem. These are some of its causes:

Frontal lobe damage

Individuals with frontal lobe damage have deficits in memory of the temporal context and have difficulties with actuality and other temporal judgments (for example, placing events in the order in which they occurred), and as such cannot adequately attribute their knowledge to the appropriate sources (i.e., they suffer from the source of amnesia).

They have normal recollection of events, but they make far more source memory errors than control subjects, and these effects become apparent as early as 5 minutes after the learning experience . They often mistakenly attribute the knowledge they have to some other source but rarely attribute it to having learned it in the course of the experiment. It appears that frontal lobe damage causes a disconnect between semantic and episodic memory, in the sense that individuals cannot associate the context in which they acquired knowledge with the knowledge itself.


Older people have been shown to have original amnesia. Compared to younger individuals, in experiments where individuals are presented with obscure or made-up trivial data, older people recall less general information in recall and recognition tasks and often misattribute the source of their knowledge, over long periods of time and short delays. This effect is potentially due to the neuronal loss associated with aging that occurs mainly in the frontal lobes.

Alzheimer disease

Known to be associated with frontal lobe dysfunction, it is implicated as a cause of source amnesia . This lack of ability to attribute the source of memories is probably related to the deficits of Alzheimer’s patients in reality monitoring.

Reality monitoring, the process of distinguishing whether information originated from an external or internal source, relies on judgment processes to examine the qualitative characteristics of the information to determine whether the information was real or imaginary. It appears that it is this process that is experiencing the dysfunction, which causes mild confabulation in some patients, and is also related to source amnesia. Read more about Alzheimer’s.


It is associated with episodic memory deficits often characterized by a confusion of internal stimuli and actual events. It seems that individuals with schizophrenia often show failure to monitor / recall the source of information, especially for self-generated articles, that is, they show source amnesia.

One study found that schizophrenia patients were not only slower, but also less accurate, in tasks involving reality monitoring, showing an inability to differentiate between internally and externally derived information. Read and learn more about schizophrenia.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

It is characterized by intense and intrusive memories of the traumatic event and poor episodic memory for all other events. Those individuals with this disorder experience memory distortions caused by source amnesia, as well as false memory construction and involuntary integration of information that was not present for the original memory.

Not only do people with this condition experience less vivid and decontextualized episodic memories in all events outside of the traumatic experience, they also have difficulty identifying the source of emotional and neutral information in general.


It is associated with overly generalized memories, and people with depression perform worse on home memory attribution tasks compared to non-depressed people. These people show a memory bias to recall negative information, possibly due to the enhanced activity of the amygdala during the encoding of emotional information (particularly negative).

In general, there is a relationship between the emotional activation of an episode and its memory of origin: there is some evidence that improved processing of negative memories results in poorer source memory, and therefore, depressed people would have higher amounts of source amnesia. Read a little more about depression.


It involves performing hypnosis and having subjects post-hypnotically recall the experiences they had during hypnosis as tested by asking people about the esoteric knowledge they learned during hypnosis.

These people generally have no recollection of the hypnotic experience at all, however, when tested on this dark insights, they can provide the correct answer; which shows that they have source amnesia: they can remember the knowledge but lack the ability to indicate the context in which they learned this knowledge.

Diagnostic tests

Wisconsin card classification test

It is widely used in clinical settings to assess cognitive deficits, such as frontal lobe disorder that has been associated with amnesia.

Procedure: The visuospatial component of this test is designed from two sets of 12 identical cards. The figures on the cards differ in color, quantity, and shape. The participants are then given a stack of additional cards and asked to match each one to one of the previous cards.

Results: Patients suffering from frontal lobe dysfunction and ultimately source amnesia will have a much greater difficulty in completing this task successfully through the strategy method.

Verbal fluency test

It is a widely used test commonly used to assess frontal lobe dysfunction in patients.

Procedure: Participants are asked to generate words that begin with letters that have been previously presented to them, for example, generate a word that begins with ‘A’ or ‘R’. The goal is to say as many different words as possible that start with the given letter.

Results: The verbal fluency test can assess damage to the prefrontal lobes, which has been associated with patients suffering from source amnesia. Frontal lobe disorder patients have trouble placing verbal elements in proper sequential order, monitoring personal behaviors, and recent poor judgment. All these behaviors are necessary for the correct recall of the source of a memory.

Old-new recognition test

Decisions made in the context of this test will be based more on familiarity than on thorough inspection of the contents of the reports.

People with this type of amnesia during this test feel “ghostly” feelings of familiarity towards words that are semantically related (eg, candy, sugar, candy) and more often report seeing a word that was not presented during the experiment. .

Procedure: Showing the participant a list of words and evaluating at different time intervals to see if the participant remembers which words were presented and which were not. For example, a 15-word list could be given to a participant to study. The experimenter will test the participant’s knowledge of the list 20 minutes later by presenting the list of studied words randomly mixed with several words.

Prevention of source amnesia

Research suggests that this amnesia is the result of poor coding of the memory of a particular context that precludes poor retrieval of a context-specific memory, except in the case of amnesiacs. This is because content needs to be encoded along with context for the two to be integrated into memory, because poor encoding can be responsible for source amnesia, it is not likely that a person will be able to retrieve a specific source memory in the future if it is not encoded correctly.

This makes it difficult to create treatments because the information may not be properly integrated within the brain. Certain prevention strategies have been studied to target at-risk populations and teach them how to prevent contextual memory loss and how to improve memory of origin in the general population.

General population

Although source amnesia appears to be the most prevalent in populations with specific brain disabilities, it is possible for people without memory deficits to experience such amnesia. This can happen if a person only encodes content and does not integrate context-specific information into memory.

Research clarifies that context-specific information is best remembered in situations that involve emotional stimuli or words. This suggests that source memory may benefit from thinking about content-related emotions to better encode source-related information, this is related to flash memory theories.


Children are more likely to correctly identify source information if they have been taught to think about the relationship between the speaker and the information being shared. This is true whether children think of perceptual or emotional ties to the speaker, but the effect seems larger when the emotional context is considered.

Increasing the coding of accurate sources is not without cost, as it was shown that children who improved their source coding typically remembered less than controls when they recalled semantic or non-source information. This suggests that there may be a trade-off when it comes to different types of memory in children, as they can only attend to a certain amount of information at a time.

Older adults

They can suffer from memory problems as a result of the natural aging process. These memory disturbances may be due to frontal lobe degeneration and other age-related changes. It is very common for older adults to experience greater amnesia compared to younger adults.

Prevention in older adults may include memory training programs in an attempt to increase cortical thickness in the brain. Research suggests that even the brains of older adults may be able to continue plasticity.

Another way that older adults can avoid amnesia is to think about the relationship between the content and the context of an experience or memory. This preventive measure should be taken when information is being encoded to direct attention to the source and be aware of how it relates to the content. Participants who experienced source amnesia performed at the same level as groups that were not at risk when these strategies were involved, suggesting that those who do not experience this memory deficit can implicitly integrate content and context.

Related phenomena

Amnesia post-hipnótica

Post-hypnotic amnesia is the phenomenon in which an individual is taught obscure information under hypnosis and is then asked to recall this information during their conscious state; however, they do not remember how or when that knowledge was taught to them. Studies have shown that subjects cannot remember anything that occurred during hypnosis and when asked how they acquired the knowledge to answer the questions, they tended to rationalize their inability to indicate how they learned it. This phenomenon is similar to flashbulbs or tongue tip memories.

Misattributed familiarity

It is the failure to remember the correct source where the information comes from and instead the individual attributes the knowledge to an incorrect source. This results from an error in the decision-making process that confuses the origin of the information.


Cryptomnesia occurs when an individual is sure that a certain word, idea, song, etc. It is your own original thinking when in reality, someone else has already thought of it, resulting in accidental plagiarism. To avoid this, it would require a mental scan to avoid repeating the thought as your own. However, this slows down the rapid recall of memory necessary in daily life, such as in conversation. This has occurred in the music industry and has implications for copyright infringement on songs, as well as on the formation of scientific research ideas.

Georgia Tarrant
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Hello, how are you? My name is Georgia Tarrant, and I am a clinical psychologist. In everyday life, professional obligations seem to predominate over our personal life. It's as if work takes up more and more of the time we'd love to devote to our love life, our family, or even a moment of leisure.