The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (2022)

In Depth|Neuroscience

The blessing and curse of the people who never forget

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The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (1)

By David Robson26th January 2016

A handful of people can recall almost every day of their lives in enormous detail – and after years of research, neuroscientists are finally beginning to understand how they do it.

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For most of us, memory is a kind of scrapbook, a mess of blurred and faded snapshots of our lives. As much as we would like to cling on to our past, even the most poignant moments can be washed away with time.

Ask Nima Veiseh what he was doing for any day in the past 15 years, however, and he will give you the minutiae of the weather, what he was wearing, or even what side of the train he was sitting on his journey to work.

“My memory is like a library of VHS tapes, walk-throughs of every day of my life from waking to sleeping,” he explains.

Veiseh can even put a date on when those reels started recording: 15 December 2000, when he met his first girlfriend at his best friend’s 16th birthday party. He had always had a good memory, but the thrill of young love seems to have shifted a gear in his mind: from now on, he would start recording his whole life in detail. “I could tell you everything about every day after that.”

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Needless to say, people like Veiseh are of great interest to neuroscientists hoping to understand the way the brain records our lives. Quick explanations – such as the possibility that it may be associated with autism – have proven to be unfounded, but a couple of recent papers have finally opened a window on these people’s extraordinary minds. And this research might even suggest ways for us all to relive our past with greater clarity.

The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (2)

Jill Price kept a diary to try to lay her intrusive memories to rest. As a bonus, her notes have now allowed scientists to verify her claims (Credit: iStock)

‘Highly superior autobiographical memory’ (or HSAM for short), first came to light in the early 2000s, with ayoung woman named Jill Price. Emailing the neuroscientist and memory researcher Jim McGaugh one day, she claimed that she could recall every day of her life since the age of 12. Could he help explain her experiences?

Intrigued, McGaugh invited her to his lab, and began to test her: he would give her a date and ask her to tell him about the world events on that day. True to her word, she was correct almost every time.

Luckily, Price had also kept a diary throughout that period, allowing the researchers to verify her recollections of personal incidents too; again, she was right the vast majority of the time. After a few years of these sporadic studies, they decided to give her a further, spontaneous test: “Name the dates of every single time you’ve visited our lab”. In an instant, she reeled off a list of their appointments. “None of us was able to recall this list,” McGaugh and his colleagues noted, but comparing her account with their own records, they found that she was absolutely accurate.

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It didn’t take long for magazines and documentary film-makers to cotton on to her “total recall”, and thanks to the subsequent media interest, a few dozen other subjects (including Veiseh) have since come forward and contacted the team at the University of California, Irvine. During one of his visits, Veiseh’s memory proved to be so accurate that he even found himself correcting the scientists’ test about the exact date that Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Intriguingly, their memories are highly self-centred: although they can remember “autobiographical” life events in extraordinary detail, they seem to be no better than average at recalling impersonal information, such as random lists of words. Nor are they necessarily better at remembering a round of drinks, say. “Sometimes I don’t remember what happened five minutes ago, but I can remember a detail from 22 January 2008,” explains “Bill”, who asked us not to use his full name to avoid unwanted attention. And although their memories are vast, they are susceptible to some of the mistakes we all make: in 2013, Lawrence Patihis (now at the University of Southern Mississippi) and colleagues found that people with HSAM still suffer from “false memories”. They can be primed to remember world events that never actually occurred, for instance.

Clearly, there is no such thing as a “perfect” memory – their extraordinary minds are still using the same flawed tools that the rest of us rely on. The question is, how?

The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (3)

HSAM may be a form of expertise, like music or sport - except their specialist subject turns out to be their own life story (Credit: Getty Images)

Some clues come from observing the way their memories evolve over time. Craig Stark at the University of California, Irvine recently questioned HSAM subjects one week, one month and one year after events in their life to see how their memories of events change over time. He thought, for instance, that HSAM subjects begin at a richer starting point, encoding more details as soon as an event has occurred. In reality, the differences only emerged months down the line: whereas for the other subjects, they had become faded and vague, for the HSAM subjects the events were still just as fresh. “It must be something about the way they hold on to the information that the rest of us aren’t doing,” Stark says.

Disappointingly, brain scans have failed to reveal any huge anatomical differences that might explain how this occurs. “It’s not like they had some extra lobe or a ‘third’ hemisphere of the brain,” says Stark. True, they could spot some signature characteristics, such asadditional wiring between the frontal lobes (involved in analytical thought) and the seahorse-shaped hippocampus towards theside of the skull, an areathought to be our memory's "printing press". But it was perfectly possible that this was the result of their skills, and not the cause: after all, practising any skill, be it music, sport, or a language, can lead the brain to build more efficient neural networks. “It’s a chicken or egg kind of thing,” says Stark.

Instead, the key seems to lie in more general thinking patterns and habits. Patihis recently profiled around 20 people with HSAM and found that they scored particularly highly on two measures: fantasy proneness and absorption. Fantasy proneness could be considered a tendency to imagine and daydream, whereas absorption is the tendency to allow your mind to become immersed in an activity – to pay complete attention to the sensations and the experiences. “I’m extremely sensitive to sounds, smells and visual detail,” explains Nicole Donohue, who has taken part in many of these studies. “I definitely feel things more strongly than the average person.”

Unknown triggers

The absorption helps them to establish strong foundations for a recollection, says Patihis, and the fantasy proneness means that they revisit those memories again and again in the coming weeks and months. Each time this initial memory trace is “replayed”, it becomes even stronger.

In some ways, you probably go through that process after a big event like your wedding day – but the difference is that thanks to their other psychological tendencies, the HSAM subjects are doing it day in, day out, for the whole of their lives.

Not everyone with a tendency to fantasise will develop HSAM, though, so Patihis suggests that something must have caused them to think so much about their past – as opposed to films or aeroplanes, say. “Maybe some experience in their childhood meant that they became obsessed with calendars and what happened to them,” says Patihis. The subjects themselves find it hard to put their finger on the trigger, however; Veiseh, for instance, knows that his HSAM began with meeting his first girlfriend, but he still can’t explain why she set it off.

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The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (4)

An extraordinary memory can make it hard to escape the pain of the past (Credit: Getty Images)

Given these findings, could we all train ourselves to think and remember like Veiseh, Donohue or Bill? Stark is intrigued by the idea. Some of his colleagues are hoping to launch an app that may encourage the active, detailed rehearsal seen in the HSAM subjects, to see if it improves later recollection. There’s already some evidence that this may be effective: one recent study found that simply replaying an event in your head for a few seconds, immediately after it had happened, led to stronger recall a week later. (Read BBC Future’s “Improve your memory in 40 seconds”.)

In reality, Stark compares it to exercise: the idea of a super memory might be nice in theory but harder to put in practice. “Look, many of us could also have fit, athletic bodies. There are great motivations – yet few of us do it.”

The people with HSAM I’ve interviewed would certainly agree that it can be a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it allows you to relive the most transformative and enriching experiences. Veiseh, for instance, is something of a polymath. He travelled a lot in his youth to compete in internationaltaekwondo competitions, but in his spare time, hevisited the local art galleries, andperhaps because his love of art is entwined with his identity, the paintings arenow lodged deep in his autobiographical memories.

“Imagine being able to remember every painting, on every wall, in every gallery space, between nearly 40 countries,” he says. “That's a big education in art by itself.”With thisencyclopaedic knowledge of the history of art, he has sincebecome a professional painter, under themoniker "Enigma of Newyork". Similarly, his memory may have also aided his other career as a doctoral researcher in design and technology, he thinks, by helping him to absorb a vast body of knowledge.

The blessing and curse of the people who never forget (5)

One man with HSAM used his extraordinary recall to absorb thousands of paintings, which helped him become an artist in his own right (Credit: iStock)

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Donohue, now a history teacher, agrees that it helped during certain parts of her education: “I can definitely remember what I learned on certain days at school. I could imagine what theteacher was saying or what it looked like in the book.”

Not everyone with HSAM has experienced these benefits, however; Price “hated” school and as a result, seemed not to be able to access the information she had learned. Clearly, the information still has to be personally important for it to stick.

Viewing the past in high definition can also make it very difficult to get over pain and regret. “It can be very hard to forget embarrassing moments,” says Donohue. “You feel same emotions – it is just as raw, just as fresh… You can’t turn off that stream of memories, no matter how hard you try.” Veiseh agrees: “It is like having these open wounds – they are just a part of you,” he says.

This means they often have to make a special effort to lay the past to rest; Bill, for instance, often gets painful “flashbacks”, in which unwanted memories intrude into his consciousness, but overall he has chosen to see it as the best way of avoiding repeating the same mistakes. “Some people are absorbed in the past but not open to new memories, but that’s not the case for me. I look forward to the each day and experiencing something new.”

Veiseh even thinks his condition has made him a kinder, more tolerant person. “Some say ‘forgive and forget’, but since forgetting is aluxuryI don't have, I need to learn to genuinely forgive,” he says. “Not just others, but myself as well.”

--

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter.

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FAQs

Is a good memory a curse or a blessing? ›

A good memory can be wonderful. It can be special time with people we care about, an experience that changes our perspective or even an moment in type in which we are left in awe… that is blessing. However, a good memory that sours new ones, or something we hold onto where we live in the past can be a curse.

What is it called when you never forget anything? ›

Hyperthymesia is an ability that allows people to remember nearly every event of their life with great precision. Hyperthymesia is rare, with research identifying only a small number of people with the ability. Studies on hyperthymesia are ongoing, as scientists attempt to understand how the brain processes memories.

Is hyperthymesia a disorder? ›

Hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), is a condition that leads people to be able to remember an abnormally large number of their life experiences in vivid detail.
...
Hyperthymesia
SpecialtyPsychology Psychiatry, neurology
1 more row

Is forgetting a blessing? ›

password, a favorite recipe or an old boyfriend, people have ample opportunity every day to curse their own forgetfulness. But forgetting is also a blessing, and researchers reported on Sunday that the ability to block certain memories reduces the demands on the brain when it is trying to recall something important.

What is a person with a good memory called? ›

People with good memory, on the other hand, are referred to as eidetic. Eidetic memory or photographic memory would be the correct term.

Can people remember being born? ›

Despite some anecdotal claims to the contrary, research suggests that people aren't able to remember their births. The inability to remember early childhood events before the age of 3 or 4, including birth, is called childhood or infantile amnesia.

What is called when you remember everything? ›

Most of us don't have a clue. But a small number of people, including a California woman named Jill Price, can remember such events in great detail. They have a condition called hyperthymesia syndrome. This is often referred to as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM).

Why do I keep remembering someone? ›

Even if the relationship ended terribly, you might still have thoughts about someone from your past, negative or positive, from time to time. Again, this is natural because they were a part of your life, and you do have memories with them, whether those memories are negative or positive.

What are the 3 types of memory? ›

The three major classifications of memory that the scientific community deals with today are as follows: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Who has the best memory in the world? ›

The first American to win the world title, he won for three consecutive years the 2015, 2016, and 2017 World Memory Championships and held the IAM world No.
...
Alex Mullen (memory athlete)
Mullen at the 2016 World Memory Championship in Singapore
Personal information
Full nameAlexander Joseph Mullen
NationalityAmerican
13 more rows

What is the opposite of hyperthymesia? ›

While, this recent research suggest that the patients are facing the opposite extreme of the hyperthymesia syndrome. In other words, severely deficient autobiographical memory. The individuals examined have high daily functioning, a proper job.

How far back can a person remember? ›

Summary: On average the earliest memories that people can recall point back to when they were just two-and-a-half years old, a new study suggests. On average the earliest memories that people can recall point back to when they were just two-and-a-half years old, a new study suggests.

Why are memories so important? ›

Memory does not only hold important knowledge about our lives and our personal attributes and traits; through mental time travel, episodic memory can also directly transport us into past, to the person that lived through our previous experiences, and into the future, to the person we are yet to become.

How can I forget everything and be happy? ›

5 Ways to Forget About The Past And Move On
  1. Change your mindset. If your mind focuses on the negative things that had happened in the past, your life will move in a negative direction. ...
  2. Cut off some friends. ...
  3. Set goals for yourself. ...
  4. Learn to forgive. ...
  5. Stop trying to impress people.

Why having a good memory is important? ›

Memory has a fundamental role in life, reflecting the past as the past, and offering the possibility of reusing all past and present experiences, as well as helping to ensure continuity between what was and what was going to be.

What are the signs of good memory? ›

Characteristics of Good Memory:-
  • Rapid learning- The quicker an object is observed, the quicker is its memorisation. ...
  • Good retention- A person's memory is considered good if he has good power of retention, and an individual who can retain and experience for a long period is said to possess a good memory.

Who has extraordinary memory? ›

Joey DeGrandis is one of fewer than 100 people identified to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM. Joey DeGrandis was about 10 years old when his parents first realized there was something special about his memory.

What are good memory quotes? ›

10 Popular quotes from GoodReads

Memories need to be shared.” “No matter how much suffering you went through, you never wanted to let go of those memories.” “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” “Humans, not places, make memories.”

Why do babies cry when born? ›

Enjoy these first wondrous cries — they signal that your baby's respiratory and circulatory systems are making a successful transition from life inside your womb to life outside it. Newborns may continue to cry because they're shocked by the transition to the outside world.

Is there a day where no one was born? ›

February 3rd is the only day where no one in history has ever been born. Despite much scientific study, there is no explanation for this phenomena. Historically it has been referred to as “the empty day” or “nobody's birthday”.

Do babies have memories in womb? ›

You probably recall little of your days in the womb, but a new study suggests that short-term memory may be present in fetuses at 30 weeks of age.

How can I improve my memory? ›

Advertisement
  1. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. ...
  2. Stay mentally active. ...
  3. Socialize regularly. ...
  4. Get organized. ...
  5. Sleep well. ...
  6. Eat a healthy diet. ...
  7. Manage chronic conditions.

Why do some people remember more than others? ›

A large body of research has found that the neurotransmitter dopamine affects our ability to recall specific past events, so called “episodic memory.” In people, for example, researchers have found that having a greater density of dopamine receptors in the hippocampus results in better episodic memory.

How many people in the world can remember everything? ›

There are only 61 people worldwide who have been identified as having hyperthymesia, one of which is actress Marilu Henner, best known for her work on the show Taxi.

What are the signs when someone is thinking about you? ›

Your Eye Twitches or Itches Randomly

A randomly twitching or itching eye is another real psychic sign that someone is thinking about you. But it gets even better. While both men and women will feel a sudden itch or twitch of an eye, the meaning is different depending on the eye.

How do you remove someone from your mind and heart? ›

12 Ways to Stop Thinking About Someone for Good
  1. Find the root.
  2. Focus on facts.
  3. Accept it.
  4. Write it down.
  5. Get distracted.
  6. Go inward.
  7. Meet your needs.
  8. Keep a distance.

Can you feel when someone is thinking of you? ›

Have you had the sensation of being touched even though no one is close to you? This can be a startling sign that someone is thinking or talking about you, which manifests as energy vibrations. Depending on the intensity of how that person feels towards you, their energy is transmitted as non-physical touch.

What is the biggest reason to forget? ›

Lack of sleep.

Not getting enough sleep is perhaps the greatest unappreciated cause of forgetfulness. Too little restful sleep can also lead to mood changes and anxiety, which in turn contribute to problems with memory.

Why do we forget? ›

Rather than being a bug, forgetting may be a functional feature of the brain, allowing it to interact dynamically with the environment. In a changing world like the one we and many other organisms live in, forgetting some memories can be beneficial as this can lead to more flexible behaviour and better decision-making.

What are the two types of memories? ›

There are two major categories of memory: long-term memory and short-term memory.

Which animal has the strongest memory? ›

1. Dolphin. Out of all the animals with great memories, dolphins are one of the best.

How can I train my brain to improve memory? ›

This article outlines 22 brain exercises that may help boost memory, cognition, and creativity.
  1. Meditation. Share on Pinterest Gen Sadakane/EyeEm/Getty Images. ...
  2. Visualizing more. ...
  3. Playing games. ...
  4. Playing memory card games. ...
  5. Practicing crossword puzzles. ...
  6. Completing jigsaw puzzles. ...
  7. Playing sudoku. ...
  8. Playing chess.
27 Jan 2021

Why am I remembering my past all of a sudden? ›

When people talk about suddenly remembering old memories, the memories they're referring to are usually autobiographical or episodic memories. As the name suggests, this type of memory stores the episodes of our life. Another type of memory that can also be suddenly remembered is semantic memory.

Is hyperthymesia photographic memory? ›

So, a person can verbatim retell a conversation that happened several years ago or make a sequence of events as accurately as possible. The difference is that photographic memory only remembers images, while Hyperthymesia remembers images, sounds, and smells.

What does hyperthymesia mean? ›

: the uncommon ability that allows a person to spontaneously recall with great accuracy and detail a vast number of personal events or experiences and their associated dates : highly superior autobiographical memory People with hyperthymesia can recall almost every day of their lives in near perfect detail, as well as ...

What age is your first memory? ›

New research shows that our earliest memories may begin at age 2.5, about a year sooner than previously thought. How far back you can remember depends on a long line-up of factors, including your culture, gender, family, and the way in which you're asked to recall memories.

What is the youngest age you can remember? ›

Current research indicates that people's earliest memories date from around 3 to 3.5 years of age.

Can adults remember childhood? ›

Adults can generally recall events from 3–4 years old, with those that have primarily experiential memories beginning around 4.7 years old. Adults who experienced traumatic or abusive early childhoods report a longer period of childhood amnesia, ending around 5–7 years old.

Do memories last forever? ›

Unfortunately, most things cannot last forever. Everything is subject to change and decay over time. Memories are destined to fade, and the brains we use to recall them will eventually shut down completely.

Are memories important in life? ›

According to Meik Wiking (author of The Art of Making Memories), happy memories are essential to our mental health. They strengthen our sense of identity and purpose and bond our relationships. Happy memories are an important ingredient in present happiness. When we are young, everything is new.

Why do we remember painful memories? ›

Researchers say negative emotions like fear and sadness trigger increased activity in a part of the brain linked to memories. These emotionally charged memories are preserved in greater detail than happy or more neutral memories, but they may also be subject to distortion.

Why is it important to forget the past? ›

The only things that come from living in the past is hurt and pain. Letting the past reside in your head is like letting a scab never heal. Letting it never heal to the point where you keep picking at it, so it keeps re-opening the wound. This life is too short to allow yourself to keep opening old wounds.

How do you forget something and move on? ›

8 Steps to Move Away From the Past You Need to Leave Behind
  1. Learn from the past but don't dwell there. Yes. ...
  2. Express yourself. ...
  3. Stop pointing fingers. ...
  4. Focus on the present. ...
  5. Disconnect for a while. ...
  6. Think about the people around you. ...
  7. Forgive those who wronged you -- including yourself. ...
  8. Make new memories.
11 Mar 2016

Do memories matter? ›

It is our memory of things that dictates how we judge a past event, how we make a decision right now and how we determine the likely outcome of a future event. Ultimately, what all this means is that it's irrelevant what our experience of a moment is like as long as our memory of it is good.

Is having a good memory a skill? ›

Being able to remember is a skill that can be improved by practice. It is perhaps more likely that the reason that memory declines with age is that we stop practising. This page sets out some ideas to help you improve your memory skills, and explains what you can do to develop a better memory.

What are people who forget things easily called? ›

forgetful Add to list Share. To be forgetful is to be absentminded. When you're forgetful, things tend to slip your mind. People can be forgetful if they really can't remember things, or if they're just not paying attention.

Can you remember being 2 years old? ›

On average the earliest memories that people can recall point back to when they were just two-and-a-half years old, a new study suggests. On average the earliest memories that people can recall point back to when they were just two-and-a-half years old, a new study suggests.

What is the person called who forgets? ›

amnesiac. (or amnesic), senile.

Why do we remember some things and not others? ›

In this way, we remember some events and not others because our brain tends to reject what is unnecessary and to keep what really matters. By way of protection, our memory tends to remember the good and the positive in order to remove from our mind the negative events that cause us pain.

Why do people forget? ›

Rather than being a bug, forgetting may be a functional feature of the brain, allowing it to interact dynamically with the environment. In a changing world like the one we and many other organisms live in, forgetting some memories can be beneficial as this can lead to more flexible behaviour and better decision-making.

Can a baby remember being in the womb? ›

You probably recall little of your days in the womb, but a new study suggests that short-term memory may be present in fetuses at 30 weeks of age.

Do babies remember pain? ›

Newborns don't remember the details of their early days, but within the first six months they develop a conditioned response to repeated painful procedures.

At what age do children remember? ›

Kids begin forming explicit childhood memories around the 2-year mark, but the majority are still implicit memories until they're about 7. It's what researchers, like Carole Peterson, PhD from Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland, call “childhood amnesia.”

What is a better word for forget? ›

Some common synonyms of forget are disregard, ignore, neglect, overlook, and slight.

What causes the brain to forget? ›

Forgetfulness can arise from stress, depression, lack of sleep or thyroid problems. Other causes include side effects from certain medicines, an unhealthy diet or not having enough fluids in your body (dehydration). Taking care of these underlying causes may help resolve your memory problems.

What is the word for forgetting a word? ›

Lethologica is both the forgetting of a word and the trace of that word we know is somewhere in our memory.

Does ADHD affect IQ? ›

Does ADHD affect IQ? A popular misconception is that all children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are naturally smarter and have a higher IQ than children without ADHD. However, there is no correlation between this condition and intelligence.

Do people with ADHD have anger issues? ›

Problems with emotional dysregulation, in particular with anger reactivity, are very common in people with ADHD. You are not alone in struggling in this area. Anger may indicate an associated mood problem but often is just part of the ADHD. Either way, changes in traditional ADHD treatment can be very helpful.

Does ADHD affect sleep? ›

Those with combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive ADHD experience both poor sleep quality and a later bedtime. Many ADHD symptoms are similar to symptoms of sleep deprivation. Among others, adult ADHD sleep problems include forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

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