presence doesn't require personalized narrative

A person known as K.C. has contributed significantly to understanding narrative and sense of presence of another. In 1981, at age 30, K.C. received a major head injury in a motorcycle accident. Despite his injury, K.C. retained normal human adult language skills. He also retained common knowledge about the world and knowledge about causal relations between actions and events. K.C.’s well-functioning memory of objective facts and procedural skills allowed him to continue, post-injury, with “effortless functioning in his everyday environment” in a way that is “comparable to most of his age mates.”[1]

K.C., however, lost the ability to remember and construct personalized narratives. Persons who knew K.C. observed that he no longer remembered his personal interactions with them. K.C. has no first-person, emotional memory of his own experiences:

K.C.’s younger brother from whom he was once inseparable met accidental death a few years prior to his own head injury. K.C. remembers nothing of the circumstances in which he had learned of this shocking news, including where he was at the time, who told him of the event, and how he reacted emotionally. Likewise, the events of a potentially lethal chemical spill from a train derailment that forced him and his family to evacuate their home for over a week have been reduced to a dry fact of the world.[2]

For K.C., “details of personal occurrences continue to exist only in the present, vanishing from K.C.’s reality the moment his thoughts are directed elsewhere.”[3] While K.C. understands objective causal reasoning, he cannot imagine himself in the future. In the language of biological science, K.C. lost the functioning of his episodic memory. In terms better understood within the humanities and within study of communication, K.C. lost the ability to remember and construct personalized narratives

K.C. shows that the world really isn’t just constructed from narratives. In an influential 1983 law review article entitled “Nomos and Narrative,” a prominent legal scholar declared:

No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. … Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live.[4]

K.C. understands much about the world that others recognize. Persons who interact with him would not conclude that he is living in a different world from them. Narrative might be understood as causal reasoning, as recognizing that this leads to that, as understanding that this law implies that behavior or else that punishment. Personalized narrative is not necessary for understanding such a system of rules or for living in a common world. One also might suspect that eloquently telling an attractive tale, or endless repeating silly ones, doesn’t make true, bountiful reality.

More significantly, at least for those not confined under non-scientific disciplines, K.C shows that making sense of presence of others doesn’t required remembering and constructing personalized narratives. In laboratory tests, K.C. is not distinguishable from ordinary persons in ability to infer another person’s mental state (known as Theory of Mind tests).[5] With respect to lower-level, more tightly synchronized processes for making sense of presence of another, K.C. also appears to be similar to ordinary persons. K.C. retains the ability to attune sensitively to others in real-time interaction. He’s characterized as “always agreeable, courteous, and attentive,” with an appreciation for sarcasm and humor. Although he has no personal emotional memory, his real-time experience of emotions is appropriate for someone with his memory: “Each time he is told of September 11, he expresses the same horror and disbelief as someone hearing of the news for the very first time.”[6]

K.C.’s interactions with others suggests the importance of sub-conscious attunement to others. A psychologist who did research with K.C. observed that K.C.:

guesses that he has never met one of the authors (R.S.R.) who has, in fact, visited him at his home approximately eight times a year for the past 5 years, though there is a certain level of familiarity and comfort that he demonstrates, particularly in a greater willingness to initiate conversation and to ask questions.[7]

Familiarity and comfort suggest ease in diffuse, sub-conscious patterns of interaction. Just like teammates on a sporting team acquire skills of tacit knowing by playing together, so too do persons in communication.


[1] Rosenbaum et. al. (2005) p. 994. This source provided the the quoted phrases and facts included in the paragraph.

[2] Id. p. 993-4.

[3] Id. p. 994.

[4] Cover (1982) p. 4. This work is at the sophisticated end of discourse about discourse, narrative analysis of narrative, the social construction of reality, pre-post-post-modernism, and (para)-en/thesis. Hamlin, Wynn, and Bloom (2007) suggests that 6-month-old, preverbal infants engage in normative “social evaluation,” evaluating other purposive, animate agents as appealing or aversive. “Social evaluation” suggests evaluation of peers. However, 12-month-old infants show relatively little interest in other infants. Infants, for good instrumental reasons, are mainly interested in adults. An alternate interpretation of Hamlin, Wynn, and Bloom (2007) is that infants as young as 6-months-old engage in rudimentary, positive instrumental reasoning.

[5] Rosenbaum et. al. (2007). This article also documents that another test subject who also lost episodic memory from an injury also could not be statistically distinguished from control subjects on Theory of Mind tests. Descriptions of the Theory of Mind tests are available in online supporting material.

[6] Rosenbaum et. al. (2005) p. 993, 994.

[7] Id. p. 993.


Cover, Robert M. (1983), “Nomos and Narrative,” Harvard Law Review v. 97, pp. 4-68.

Hamlin, J. Kiley, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom (2007), “Social evaluation by preverbal infants,” Nature v. 450 (22 November 2007).

Rosenbaum, R. Shayna, Stefan Köhler, Daniel L. Schacter, Morris Moscovitch,
Robyn Westmacott, Sandra E. Black, Fuqiang Gao, Endel Tulving (2005), “The case of K.C.: contributions of a memory-impaired person to memory theory,” Neuropsychologia v. 43, n. 7. pp. 989-1021.

Rosenbaum, R. Shayna, Donald T. Stuss, Brian Levine, Endel Tulving (2007), “Theory of Mind is Independent of Episodic Memory,” Science v. 318 (23 November 2007) p. 1257.

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