Chances are you don’t remember last Tuesday’s work ensemble, the list of songs that played on the radio during your commute to work yesterday morning, or the lunch you ate on the third Wednesday of your freshman year of high school. After all, the human brain can’t possibly remember every single thing done, said, and experienced in a lifetime…or can it?
Those who have hyperthymesia would say it is possible.
WHAT IS HYPERTHYMESIA?
Also known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), hyperthymesia is an extremely rare condition that allows an individual to remember their lives intensely on a day-by-day basis. People with hyperthymesia can recall
the events of any given calendar date with remarkable detail. Hyperthymesia has only been officially defined since 2006, and just became prominently known due to the 2011 TV series “Unforgettable” and the publicity of Marilu Henner—an actress, producer, and author, and only one of 12 people known in the world who has HSAM.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
HSAM basically transforms the brain into a database, where acute details are meticulously monitored. As events take place, the brain stores them in a metaphorical file cabinet, organized with perfection
. Even decades after
the day, individuals can remember the clothes
they wore, the meals they ate throughout the day, and who they interacted with. Instead of relying on mnemonic tricks (like the ABC song to remember the alphabet, or punchy acronyms to evoke lengthy phrases) and repetitive practice to store information, the brain simply has a natural way of storing data. PROS
There are obvious perks of having HSAM. Remembering all the fun, quirky things you’ve done with best friends and family is, of course, at the top of the list! CONS
Forgive and forget is obviously out of the question, meaning that the disorder can easily interfere with relationships and mending conflict. Additionally, research shows that the overloaded stream of memories can disrupt an average day’s activities (i.e. work, exercise
, a mediocre task). And although experienced memories are superb, photographic memory doesn’t always come as easily, meaning that common information can be harder to memorize.
HOW AM I DIFFERENT?
For the normal person, the brain stores day-to-day experiences as short-term memories. You might remember what earrings you wore yesterday, but by next Monday, you’re likely to have forgotten. Remembering what you ate for dinner last night, but again, by the end of the week, the memory has likely faded. You won’t know if the conversation you had with your boss was last Tuesday or last month. You won’t be certain if Grandma called at noon or right before dinner. That said, if the experience was atypical, or meaningful in some way, it might be stored in long-term memory. For example, a first kiss, your prom date night, what your first day of college was like, your marriage proposal, a falling out with a best friend, a book that changed your life, your favorite marathon…these are all things that have an indefinite expiry. Short- and long-term memories are stored in different sections of the brain and are processed differently over time. While those with HSAM initially process short-term memories the same as anyone else, those little things become more permanent. And interestingly, researchers have found that those with HSAM can improve the accuracy and detail of memories over time—whereas most people lose details and blur facts with imagination as time passes. The human brain is an awesome tool, and as new scientific discoveries of its capabilities come to light, humans continue to be inspired by their own noggins. The obscure disease of hyperthymesia is just one example of outstanding memory, teaching us to never underestimate what our minds are capable of.