Hyperthymesia is a neurological syndrome in which those affected remember nearly every event of their lives in perfect detail. It is extremely rare, affecting only a handful of people alive today. Although many people desire the idea of having a “perfect memory”, the reality of living with hyperthymesia is often less-than-stellar.
Figure 1. Electrical Activity in the Brain .
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to remember all that you’ve ever experienced, in almost perfect detail? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to remember everything your teacher went over during class, or what it was like being an infant?
This is the astonishing reality for those living with hyperthymesia, but it’s not always as “bright and sunny” as it may seem.
What is Hyperthymesia?
Hyperthymesia, also known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), is a neurological syndrome that is characterized by a person’s ability to recall every event in their life in almost impeccable detail. It is extremely rare, as only 61 people in the world are known to have it .
Individuals who have this extraordinary memory are identified through two criteria: 1) they spend an inordinate amount of their time thinking about and even living through their past, and 2) they have a phenomenal ability to recall previous events with exceptional precision. What truly makes a hyperthymesiac special is their uncanny ability to remember even the most mundane circumstances and events. When asked about a specific date 10 years ago, these people with HSAM can tell you what day of the week it was, what they were wearing, what the weather was like, and any significant events that happened in the news with 97% accuracy .
Those with hyperthymesia are different from others who have advanced memories. People who win memory competitions, for example, have to put effort into remembering. They often utilize memory techniques such as mnemonics to successfully encode and recall information. Those with hyperthymesia, on the other hand, have a memory that works automatically and does not require conscious effort to form their highly-specific memories. Interestingly, traditional memory testing was performed on hyperthymesiacs and found that their performance was comparable to that of a control group . This further supports the idea that hyperthymesiacs possess a truly unique and inborn episodic memory.
When Was It Discovered?
Hyperthymesia was discovered in 2006 by a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine. These researchers were presented with the case of a woman called AJ, later identified as Jill Price, who demonstrated the ability to recall a seemingly-impossible number of personal events . By studying Jill Price and other individuals who were later identified to have hyperthymesia, researchers were able to learn more about the syndrome.
Do Hyperthymesiacs Have Special Brains?
Researchers from the University of California Irvine found that those with hyperthymesia had differing brain and mental processing from average people. Their study found that hyperthymesiacs had variations in nine different structures of their brains, most of which were in areas known to be linked to autobiographical memory . These regions include the uncinate fasciculus, which may be involved in facial naming and recognition, and the parahippocampal gyrus, which is essential for memory formation and retrieval [5,6].
What’s it Really Like to Live With Hyperthymesia?
According to HK, a hyperthymesiac interviewed by the National Institute of Health, dates and events just “come into” his mind. “I remember everything that happens during my day. All of it is easy to remember. I feel like I am a walking computer sometimes. The information just gets stored in my brain. It can get distracting but I can let it go too.”
When asked about whether he thinks about his memories a lot, HK responded with, “Well, I think about them quite a bit. Especially if it is something that affects me. A lot of times, when someone mentions something to me, it triggers a memory. I like telling my grandmother what certain anniversaries are. Like I’ll think about what we did 5 years ago. You know, she also takes me to appointments so that I can help her remember stuff too .”
As incredible as it may seem, hyperthymesia has its downsides. It is linked with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) behaviors, and has been known to consume the individuals who have it . Jill Price suffers major disruption in her daily life. She states, “As I grew up and more and more memories were stored in my brain, more and more of them flashed through my mind in this endless barrage, and I became a prisoner to my memory… Learning how to manage a life in the present with so much of the past continually replaying itself in my mind has been quite a challenge, often a debilitating one. I have struggled through many difficult episodes of being emotionally overwhelmed by my memory through the course of my life.”
Price hopes that her brain will help solve the “riddles of the tragic disorders of memory loss” and that her story will inspire others. “For now, I hope that my story is illuminating and thought provoking for readers; and helps explain the role of memory in all of our lives — as well as that of forgetting — and how our memories to such a significant degree make us who we are . ”
What’s Next For Research on Hyperthymesia?
At this point, the structural brain differences in hyperthymesiacs are not entirely understood. Further research on how each difference affects development of the condition may be beneficial to the current understanding of memory. Moreover, some researchers believe that the brains of hyperthymesiacs hold the key to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease . These extraordinary brains may be the next gold mine in neurocognitive research.
Christine is on the NCN Management Team and contributes to the MYELIN project for the IYNA. A junior in high school from Friendship, Maryland, Christine writes weekly articles pertaining to health, medicine, and psychology for Affinity Magazine. She is the Future Medical Professionals Club President and Psych & Neuroscience Club/Psi Alpha Chapter Founder and President at her school. Currently, Christine is pursuing research in the field of neurogenomics on SLITRK3 gene expression in the prefrontal cortex. In her free time, you can find Christine playing on her school’s varsity softball team, listening to podcasts, or spending time with friends (and dogs).