Memory Marvels: People Who Can’t Forget

“Invalid username or password. Please try again.” For the nth time, I see this line, bold, red, and menacing on the computer screen. I was trying to log in to a long-unopened web account, and yet again I have forgotten either the password or the username I had used to sign up to it (and pity I don’t even know whether it’s the username or password I’m getting wrong in my fruitless attempts to log in).

We all know how exasperating it can be to try to remember something but couldn’t. We forget birthdays, anniversaries, names, where we left our keys, the phone number of that plumber we now desperately need to contact, and all the other minute details we know are somewhere in our brain but couldn’t quite summon up when we need them. Would it not be great if we could automatically store everything in our memories and effortlessly retrieve them as needed?

Ask Jill Price, a woman who can recall every detail of her life since she was fourteen years old. That’s right, every detail of every event of every day—not just milestones like the first time she rode a bike or the day she got married, but right down to the littlest details such as whether she went to work on December 17, 1982, what day of the week that was, and what she ate for lunch that day—and such recollections can be verified too, as she kept an extensive record of her daily experiences in a diary she maintained from age 10 to age 34.

Initially introduced as the subject “AJ” in a report published in the journal Neurocase in 2006, Price’s ability has since then mystified experts and the general public alike. She is the first confirmed case of “hyperthymesia” (from “hyper” meaning excessive and “thymesis” meaning remembering), a condition characterized by an exceptionally accurate autobiographical memory.

Price’s condition is differentiated from those with photographic memories or other cases such as mnemonists who can perform impressive memory feats by using mnemonic strategies to memorize large amounts of information. Price’s memory is described as “nonstop, uncontrollable, and automatic”—memories are involuntarily encoded and automatically retrieved without reliance on any memorization strategy.

Now, such condition would probably draw up images of Price effortlessly acing exams in school or being the longest-running defending champion in Jeopardy, but surprisingly, she reveals: “I was not good in school…My memory’s autobiographical, so I could tell you my life. But to memorize a poem or a monologue was very excruciating for me.” Hyperthymesic individuals thus have highly superior but selective memories. They are not gifted at memorizing lengthy strings of random words or digits, but are capable of almost-perfect recollection of the details of specific events from their personal past and historical events that are personally significant to them.

Such capacity is astonishing, to say the least. But after our initial amazement at this exceptional ability, we just as swiftly begin to recognize that such capacity can be as much of a burden as it is a gift. Price remembers everything—not just the memories she wants to remember, but also those she would really rather forget. What’s more, when she recalls specific moments in her past, she doesn’t just summon up the facts of the event, but also the emotions attached to it—leading some experts to call her memory “emotional memory,” to differentiate it from memory created and retained through learning, practice and repetition. Price’s life memories and the emotions associated with them remain with her—for better, or for worse.

Of course, while we can clearly see the disadvantage of being stuck with the worst recollections of every hurt feeling, offensive comment, and disappointment in our lives, we might still very well covet an infallible memory of a different kind—not the autobiographical one, but the one that would allow us to memorize large amounts of information, from poetry and equations to entire textbooks and digit sequences stretching to the moon and back.

For that, consider the case of Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian mnemonist who lived in the early 1900s. Simply known as the subject “S.” in many published studies, Shereshevskii could memorize speeches word for word, poems in foreign languages, and complex math formulae in just minutes. Give him a giant grid of numbers and he can reproduce the same set of digits without error, arranged both forward and backward—and do so again with the same accuracy if you ask him to do it 15 years later, without having to hear them again.

Shereshevskii did make a living out of demonstrating his mnemonic abilities to audiences, but he confessed to having a serious problem: He struggled to forget. In ordinary human memory, a sort of “built-in forgetfulness” is endowed, to prevent the brain from getting cluttered with information that’s already irrelevant or useless. For instance, if we had to use a phone number only once and no longer bring it to mind ever again, then that piece of information eventually fades with time—if it didn’t, our brains would be encumbered by millions of unimportant details that would only serve to confuse instead of help us.

But because Shereshevskii’s memory was virtually boundless and so enduring every memory was hardly wiped out, the mnemonics and visual images he had created to perform his memory feats kept cropping up in his consciousness even when he didn’t want them to. This greatly interfered with his ability to concentrate and he found it difficult to even hold conversations with others, because what the other person said would at times trigger a set of memory associations in his head.

The cases of these two memory marvels bring to light several interesting points not only about memory, but also about forgetting. Several times in our lives, we may have cursed forgetting as a human weakness that’s the only thing standing between us and the much-coveted superpower of infallible memory. But the fact is, forgetting is also a strength in its own respect, as it is an important adaptive act. Day in and day out, we are bombarded by thousands of images, sensations, and other inputs from the rest of our senses. It is our brain’s capacity to sift through all these inputs and identify which ones to hold on to and which to discard that ultimately help us keep safe, survive, and retain our sanity.

What’s more, aside from the numerous scientific studies that have pointed out how a certain degree of forgetting is essential to efficient remembering, it’s also worthy to note the positive effect forgetting can have on our emotional well-being. As the poet Christina Rossetti wisely pointed out, “Better by far that you should forget and smile, than that you should remember and be sad.”

The paradox is that the aspects of ourselves that we think make us broken and need fixing—say, the fact that we forget things—are actually the very aspects of ourselves that make us whole and keep us together. With this, then, we might do well to recognize and appreciate that while remembering is indeed a gift, so is forgetting.

And that’s one thing we shouldn’t forget. ♦

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