It’s been a little while, and I hope you’ve been doing well. I come with something different today and before you keep going, I’d like you to be prepared: this isn’t a fashion related post; rather, it explores one of my other interests. If you’ll recall, on the about page of the website, we expressed having a passion for fashion, and other things, because we believe that there is more to life than just fashion, after all. This is one of the said other things.
Now that my brain cells have finally stopped firing up and I’m calmer, I’ll give you a backstory. As a little girl, I wanted to become a lawyer, or so I thought. I remember always being ready to take anyone on with my tiny self, and not giving up until I passed my point across – it truly meant war. In retrospect, it seemed predetermined – almost everyone I met had the same thing to say: “Oh you definitely have to be a lawyer,” “you’ll make a fine lawyer” (you know how people usually foresee your future).
This happened so much that it began to seem like a reaffirmation. But I guess it wasn’t one because I was well on my way to becoming a lawyer when I had an epiphany – ‘arts’ (as they would call the general category back in high school) was not doing it for me. I don’t know what it was but I just wasn’t enthused, so I switched to sciences and realized that I had a penchant for the health field – particularly obstetrics and gynecology – and I graduated from university with a degree in Health Sciences (nerd alert anyone?). Undoubtedly, topics related to this field excite me – so much so that I scare myself sometimes, but I’m sure I’m not alone.
I was recently engaging in my daily morning routine of reading the news and being updated on global on-goings when I stumbled upon a concept I found rather fascinating. Prior to the article I read, I hadn’t explicitly heard of a rare condition known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or hyperthymesia. The first case was documented eleven years ago, and only a handful of individuals (approximately 60) worldwide have been diagnosed; thus, contributing to the rarity of the condition and the minimal available literature.
Hyperthymesia, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM for short), is a condition, or ability, that enables an individual recall a majority of their past personal events and experiences. It directly affects the episodic/autobiographical memory (one that involves personal events definable with respect to time and locus), and is distinguishable from other superior memory abilities due to the lack of utilization of mnemonic skills. It is quite the fascinating curiosity, if I must say.
Though individuals with HSAM have been reported to recall salient autobiographical events (including the trivial details) with 97% accuracy, it has been postulated that a reconstructive memory mechanism with a minimal likelihood of immunity amongst humans is involved (i.e. it is ubiquitous, and no one is immune to memory distortions) – suggesting that, much like anyone else, they are susceptible to false memories. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the wealth of interest and intrigue that this condition has.
2006 became a year of significance as it saw a breakthrough in memory research: the first case – that of Jill Price – was reported by Dr. James McGaugh. Price’s distinctive ability to recall personal events from her past with high levels of precision, and decision to email Dr. McGaugh, led her to become the first person to be diagnosed with the condition. For Price, who was born on the 30th of December 1965, it’s all about dates.
She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.”
To every advantage, there is most certainly a corresponding disadvantage. On one hand, the condition seems to be quite the allure, and on the other, it poses to be an encumbrance in the lives of some of these people. As Price acknowledges:
It’s like a split screen. I’ll be talking to someone and seeing something else … Like we’re sitting here talking and I’m talking to you and in my head I’m thinking about something that happened to me in December 1982… With so many memories always at the ready, it can be maddening: virtually anything that is seen or heard can be a potential trigger.”
Needless to say, her case pioneered research on hyperthymesia and consequently raised more awareness. More cases, like those of Bob Petrella, Brad Williams, Louise Owen, Rick Barron (also here), Rebecca Sharrock, have been reported. Interestingly, it was that of Sharrock that sparked the curiosity in me. At a tender age of 18 months old, Sharrock had her first recollection in the form of a dream, and it’s only snowballed since then. Much like Price, Sharrock suffers the same fate. As much as she can remember the good – celebrations, toys, interests – she can also remember the bad, in great detail.
With all that’s been said, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that various researches have been conducted and certainly controversies have ensued. Without a doubt, there is a lot more than this post is letting on: I could have delved deeper into the scientific facets, however, the post was only intended to provide a light introduction to the condition.
It has been proven that the brain continually forms synaptic connections, thus an ever-changing neural network. This memory ability/condition, in its entirety, epitomizes the utter complexity of our cognitive abilities as humans, and it’s truly remarkable. If I had such an ability, I think I would be torn – on one hand, I’d love to remember my innocence, and how I perceived life, as a child; on the other, the uncontrollable nature would leave me perturbed. If you could, would you want to remember past events with such keen details?