Monday 22 January 2018

Supermemory can be a curse or blessing

Aurelian Hayman has highly superior autobiographical memory
Aurelian Hayman has highly superior autobiographical memory

Supermemory can be a curse or blessingTHE story of Aurelian Hayman, a 20-year-old young man from England, is truly fascinating. At about the age of 11 his family began to notice that his memory for past, personal events was very good. He could recall exactly when he first met his friends and could detail what had happened in the world on that day. His teachers also knew that his memory was above average.

Only in September 2011 did the significance of this ability become apparent to him when he was directed to an online article by a friend about an American woman, Jill Price, now aged 46, who had a similar ability.

Both of them are among a handful of people with a rare condition -- highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), also called hyperthymesia ('hyper' means excessive; 'thymesis' means remembering).

This term was first used by James McGaugh, a neurobiologist from the University of California, after they had examined Jill Price. Since then McGaugh and his team have examined more than 500 possible candidates for this phenomenon but only 33 have been confirmed.

Hyperthymesia is a condition in which there is near perfect recall of personal events from one's life. So, asked what they were doing on January 10 2008, Hayman, Price and others with this gift will be able to describe in detail not only their own activities but also historical events in the world on that day. But for some it is not regarded as a gift but as a torment that paralyses their day-to-day thoughts and actions.

For instance, Price has described hers as a curse in her autobiography (with Bart David) 'The Woman Who Can't Forget'. And when we reflect on this, we can easily see why.

When we experience a trauma, time usually heals the wounds as the hurt diminishes.

This is partly because our brains forget details about the event and our emotions are becalmed. But if we recall everything, this soothing cannot happen. Every detail is recollected as if it is happening afresh; every single traumatic event of one's life: all their heartbreaks, the pain of all their losses, every awkward gaffe, recalled in high definition.

The emotional toll it extracts explains why Jill Price so willingly gave her time to the scientists in California in the hope that the uncontrollable memories and emotions could be understood and ultimately brought under control.

Another describes it as "a running movie that never stops" and that her world is like a split screen, with the past and present running simultaneously.

But not everybody with perfect memory considers it a curse; some live normal lives not so crippled by the emotional excesses described by Price.

Hayman's experience of hyperthymesia has been the opposite of Price's. He views it positively. Hayman, like Price, has been of immense interest to neuroscientists and he was studied in depth by Prof. Giuliana Mazzoni, Head of Psychology at the University of Hull in England.

Brain imaging techniques have allowed microscopic examination of his brain processes during recall of these remote events.

Others have been subjected to detailed psychological testing to try and understand the processes that underpin this phenomenon.

Explanations are as yet unclear due to the very recent diagnosis. One of the studies suggests that the on-off retrieval system for memories of past events never switches off. One of the earliest cases, Solomon Shereshevskii (1928), had synaesthesia, a condition in which senses are fused so that sounds are smelled and visual images are heard.

Incomprehensible though these explanations may seem, they suggest that there are neurobiological processes operating, of which we still have little understanding but which will be amenable to more precise study in the future.

Despite the exceptional quality of autobiographical memory, this does not extend to recall of such detail as physics formulae, poetry or the material that is required to pass examinations.

Research shows that performance at ordinary memory tests accords with the range in the general population. So Jill Price and Aurelian Hayman are as likely to have the same problems remembering their poetry in class or forgetting where they put the umbrella as you or I.

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