Everyone has seen the television trope of the genius who remembers everything he or she has ever read or encountered. It seems like some type of Hollywood superpower made up for the sake of saving time because the show is only 30 minutes long. Actually, a super memory is something a small percentage of people all over the world possesses. Hyperthymesia, or Total Memory Recall, is the trait of having an overly acute autobiographical memory. Basically, those who have hyperthymesia remember every encounter they have ever had, every moment in their lives, in perfect detail. Only about 12 people in recorded history have ever been diagnosed with hyperthymesia. Below is a quick synopsis of how this disorder works and an overview of a couple cases of people diagnosed with hyperthymesia.
Characteristics of Hyperthymesia
Like most abnormal brain conditions, hyperthymesia comes with the good and the bad. There are obvious advantages to remembering everything which has ever happened in one’s life. Firstly, the memories usually start around puberty, which means that the important aspects of a person’s adult life will likely fall within the realm of his or her extraordinary memory. Furthermore, never forgetting anything means never having to write anything down. Dates, like birthdays or anniversaries, as well as conversations shared between friends and family come into the brain as if they has just happened. Unfortunately, for some who have been diagnosed with hyperthymesia, building and maintaining relationships is difficult. This is understandable because it must be difficult to argue or disagree with someone who is literally always right.
Another issue which plagues those with total memory recall is wandering thoughts. It is not easy for those with total memory recall to stay on task. Think about it this way: when making eggs and toast for breakfast, it doesn’t typically bring up any significant memories for everyday people. However, making eggs and toast for someone with hyperthymesia means they can easily start to remember every other time they have ever had eggs and toast. This can mean a lot of perfectly detailed memories all playing in quick succession. This disruption can happen in any daily situation or interaction. To top it off, hyperthymestic individuals often lack the ability to control the association of their thoughts according to researchers in California. This can cause prolonged, uncontrollable lapses in time during which an individual is simply remembering past associations.
Notable Cases of Hyperthymesia
The first recorded case of hyperthymesia was that of Jill Price of Southern California who was studied by researchers in the state for her extraordinary memory. She can remember every aspect of her life beginning on February 5, 1980. She was 14 years old at that time. While doctors have hypothesized that her condition can be explained as a highly intricate form of obsessive compulsive disorder, Price herself rejects that claim. A book she co-wrote about her condition entitled The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science explains her condition in her own words along with some of the struggles that come about while living with hyperthymesia.
This British man was diagnosed with hyperthymesia at 20 years of age and holds his total memory recall in a different regard than his American counterpart. He sees his diagnosis as a gift and, while an interesting trait, it does not affect his life so much that he would consider it negative. For example, as a university student, he stated that because the disorder only helps him remember personal details of his life, that it is virtually obsolete when it comes to his schoolwork as an English literature major. A documentary about his life entitled The Boy Who Can’t Forget was aired in 2012 and can still be found online.
Hyperthymesia, while seeming to be a great blessing, can be a hard disorder to have for some. In this case, its beauty is truly in the eye of its beholder. While some, like Jill Price, may struggle with the diagnosis, others may see it as an endless possibility. Alas, we can’t all have perfect memories, so it is important to remember that we do all we can to care for the imperfect ones we possess.