08 October 2017

The Guardian: “Total recall: the people who never forget”

Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. 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.

The findings suggest that no one, not even a “memory wizard”, is immune to the reconstructive mechanisms that enable memory distortions. When people with average memory recall an experience, it is formed not only by what they think happened and how they felt at the time, but by what they know and feel now. We’re pulling together everything in the present to come up with an approximation of the past, and that’s the same with HSAM people, Patihis said. The findings were not popular with some of the HSAM subjects because, as Stark, a co-author on the paper, pointed out, having accurate memories is central to their identities.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

How would your life look like if you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) forget anything? Tricky question, since very few people actually experience this strange medical condition – and, as discovered, even they are subject to the imperfections of human memory. It’s a fascinating subject to study, but I fear, with so little cases, it will remain a medical curiosity, rather than uncovering new insights into how memory works.

HSAM highly superior autobiographical memory
‘The HSAM subjects turned out to be far better than people with average memories at recalling long-past autobiographical data; in memories that could be verified, they were correct 87% of the time.’ Photograph: Sharon Vos-Arnold/Getty Images

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