Lifestyle Health

Sunday 24 September 2017

Unravelling the mysterious curse of a flawless memory

Patricia Casey

In May of 1928, Alexander Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist, got what was probably one of the greatest shocks of his life.

A man with a perfect memory had just walked through his office door. The man's name was Solomon Shereshevskii, and he remembered absolutely everything that had happened him from the age of one until his then age of 40.

The sceptical Luria asked Shereshevskii, once he was comfortable, to recite a list of 30 random numbers that Luria had scribbled down on a piece of paper. To Luria's astonishment, Shereshevskii did it perfectly -- and then did it backwards.

Over the years, Shereshevskii took part in a large number of experiments designed to test his memory, and he and Luria became good friends. In fact, near the end of his life, when he and Luria were working out how to turn this story into a book, Luria found the piece of paper upon which he had 30 years previously scribbled those 30 numbers. He asked Shereshevskii if he could recite them. He could.

Solomon Shereshevskii's case is rare, so rare that only a few such cases have been described. One such person, Jill Price, a 43-year-old from the US has written (with Bart David) her story, The Woman Who Can't Forget.

Another person with the same ability is Brad Williams, a news anchor with a Wisconsin radio station and around 200 others have come forward since this phenomenon was publicised.

It has become known as Superior Autobiographical Memory Syndrome or Hyperthymesis (hyper, meaning excessive; thymesis, means remembering) and is characterised by an ability to recollect every event from one's past, as if it had just happened. Price, for example, can remember everything about her life since her 20th year, and has exceptional memory for any time before that.

She identifies the onset of this ability around the age of eight when her family moved house. When asked what happened on June 30 of her 27th year, she would be able to describe any important historical events that happened on that day, and, with equal certainty, with whom she spent the day, and what she was doing.

Shereshevskii's case, it appears, is at least partially explained by the fact that he had a very peculiar case of synaesthesia. Normally, synaesthetes mix up one sense with another so that colours can be heard, and sounds can be seen. Essentially, this meant that he could use colours, sounds, mnemonics to better remember things.

Jill Price's ability and that of most of the other cases, however, remains unexplained. Scientist Dr James McGaugh, from the Centre For The Neurobiology Of Learning & Memory at the University of California, has become involved in their study.

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to have a vivid recollection of all events from our lives. Shereshevskii and Price are in agreement about one thing: that their talent is no gift, but a curse. And when we pause to consider this, we can easily see why.

When we suffer some trauma, time usually heals the wounds, partly because our brains forget details about the event, and so our emotions are becalmed. But if we recall everything, this cannot happen.

Every detail is recollected as if it is happening afresh, and this for every single traumatic event of one's life, every gaffe, heartbreak, pain, embarrassment and loss. The emotional toll it extracts explains why Jill Price was so willing to give her time to the scientists; in the hope that the uncontrollable memories and emotions could be understood and ultimately brought under control.

Of course, not everyone with perfect memory considers it a curse; some live normal lives not so crippled by the emotional excesses described by Price.

With the help of modern science, our understanding of how memory works has improved significantly but as the extraordinary condition of hyperthymesis shows, there are still mysteries hidden deep in the recesses of our brain that continue to challenge and to demand answers.

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