Those of you with a photographic memory have a good recollection of present and especially past events but there’s a fairly new condition you might not have heard of that trumps a good memory every time, commonly known as an autobiographical memory.
Meet Jill Price, the first person to be diagnosed with the condition.
She claimed her earliest memory was from the age of eighteen months- as opposed to others possibly having clear memories between the ages of two and a half to four years.
Price- born in New York, now 51, remembers the day of the week for every date since the year 1980, when she was fourteen years and eight months old.
There are over sixty known people who have a highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) according to a recent media report.
What these people have in common is the ability to recall long past events with such accuracy as if they’d occurred only yesterday.
A photographic memory seems to be limited to detailed mental pictures while an autobiographical one not only recalls images with a hundred percent accuracy but the finer details like dates, days, times, names, clothing worn and the state of the weather as examples.
Bear in mind that someone with an autobiographical memory has memories from earliest childhood through the various stages of life on tap and as the name suggests reads like a personal documentary.
Price claims that her memories can be involuntarily triggered by present day stimuli and says her memory is like a split screen-on the left side is the here and now and on the right a constant rolling reel of memories.
It all started when she emailed Dr James McGaugh- director of the Centre for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory from the University of California in the year 2000- complaining about a problem with her memory.
Price sent that email because she was desperate explaining;
Whenever I see a date flash on television-or anywhere else for that matter-I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on- and on…..and on………and on.
She strongly disagrees with anyone who labels her hyperactive memory a gift saying; it’s a burden- the memories are non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy.
No doubt she wasn’t kidding when on record saying not only did she want a diagnosis for her problem memory but a pill for it as well.
Price aced a series of memory tests on important dates of the 20th century- but that was only the beginning.
McGaugh assembled a team to determine the depth and breadth of her memory.
First of all Price’s ability to learn and remember was mapped and the results analysed.
Over the following five years she was given a battery of standardized memory, IQ and learning tests, as well as a series of specially developed ones.
One example was asking Price-who’s Jewish- to write down the date of every Easter from 1980 to 2003- she got only one date wrong on top of which she was out by only two days.
She was also able to recall- you guessed it- what she did on those days.
When the same exercise was repeated two years later she not only corrected the date she had got wrong but gave the same answers for her personal memories on those days.
Luckily Price kept a diary recording the details of her life from 24 August 1980- making at least one entry- usually more- daily.
This provided a way to organize her thoughts and testify her memories were real and part of a historical record outside of herself.
Price claimed she never re-read the entries in her diary and considering the random dates the researchers threw at her there is no reason to assume she could have prepared for their questions.
The researchers also cross referenced her answers with what was written in her diary and in some instances were able to verify memories with her mother.
Overtime it was clear her memory was unprecedented- but when it came to remembering details she could not personally relate to she fared no better than average.
She described herself as a ‘news junkie’ who made the details of important events part of her personal narrative enabling her to achieve high scores on the first general knowledge test set by McGaugh.
Additionally she recalled the dates for the Christian observation of Easter for the same reason- it was interwoven with her personal memories- not apart from them.
She claims her school days were torture as she couldn’t remember facts and figures but was unbelievably good at remembering things on topics in which she had an interest.
So then- Price’s memory is as selective as the normal person’s only storing the information she finds important- with one big difference- she’s better at retaining and retrieving those memories.
It’s interesting to note that some people able to identify a day of the week for any given date outside of their personal experiences tend to be autistic- which Price isn’t.
The researchers’ pseudonym for her was “AJ” described as both the “warden and prisoner” of her memories- a narrative that Price wholeheartedly agreed with.
Dr James McGaugh spent his life studying memory and their impact on memory creation and storage by the neurobiological systems involved.
A general rule being the more emotionally challenging the experience- good or bad- the greater the likelihood of it being vividly remembered.
The unique condition of Price and those like her offered an opportunity to learn more of how the creation and storing of memories works.
A fact that came to light in the neurobiological studies of those with HSAM was that those with the condition had a mental filing system that assisted with the retrieval of memories by sorting them chronologically or categorically helping to organize and tag them for easy reference.
Compare this to the person with an average to good memory who is bad at temporally placing remembered events.
McGaugh notes that everything we do is built around the ability to date.
So maybe there’re people who have strong autobiographical memory who just don’t bother to date their memories with the result they’re not being diagnosed.
Another observation was the linking of those with HSAM and obsessive behaviours in particular obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which was dominant in this group.
There were also neuro-physical differences between HSAM subjects and people with average memories.
Brain scans revealed that those with HSAM had structural anomalies in areas of the brain associated with autobiographical memory creation- an area shown to be engaged during recollection of emotional memories-and one that transmits information and is involved in episodic memory retention.
But while correlation is important it still doesn’t explain the cause.
And science is a still a long way from pinpointing causation in this area.
A question to consider is whether the superior memory processing and retention skills of those with HSAM changes their brain structure over time?
An example maybe revealed in a study of London taxi drivers who found navigating the dense streets led to an increase in grey matter volume in the memory creation and storage parts of the brain.
The jury is still out on whether the difference in the HSAM brain structure is the CAUSE of their memory or if their memory function results in changes to their brain structure- or maybe its a combination of both.
As McGaugh says the question should be not why the HSAM subjects remember but rather why everybody else forgets.
Those who have the HSAM condition can be described in a nutshell as bad forgetters.
One of the founding fathers of modern psychology- William James- wrote;
The peculiar mixture of forgetting with our remembering is the very keel on which our mental ship is built.
If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.