SLIDER

Hyperthymesia

Wednesday, November 7, 2012
What is the earliest memory that you have?

A few years ago someone asked me this question. I knew straight away.
I could see myself as a little girl in a little knee length dress with white shoes balancing carefully as I walked along a long plank of wood lying on grass. Someone - an older child - is holding my hand to help me.

I asked my mother about this memory.
She told me I was 18 months old and they were building their house. My older cousin Leesa used to come and play with me at the site to help my mother.

At the time I thought it was rather extraordinary that I would have such an early memory. I have another - very vague one - that was possibly even earlier.

Since that time, I have been rather intrigued with my memory. I don't think I have hyperthymesia, which is (according to Wikipedia) a superior autobiographical memory, the type of memory that forms people's life stories.
The capabilities of the affected individuals are not limited to recalling specific events from their personal experience. Hyperthymesia has both enhanced autobiographical and episodic memory[1] There are two important characteristics of hyperthymesia:
  1. Persons with the syndrome spend much of their time thinking about their pasts.
  2. Persons with the syndrome have an unusual, amazing capacity to remember as well as recall any specific personal events or trivial details, including a date, the weather, what people wore on that day, from their past.

The reason I don't think I have it is that I'm not good with dates - which seems to be a startlng characteristic of this memory recall syndrome. I can't recall what I was doing on August 27, 1987, for example.

But since that first question was asked of me, I have noticed several things:

1. If I think about a particular time in my life - for example, the last few days of school in my Intermediate years, I can rememer just about everything from that day, even down to what I was wearing and what my friends were wearing. Or my school camps - I remember conversations I had, and games we played so vividly that in my memory it could have been yesterday.

2. The strangest thing with an acute memory, is that time seems to stand still. I have noticed this with old friends. People I haven't seen for years. When I do meet up with them, I feel the years dropping away. And I expect that friendship/relationship to be the same that it was back then - and the slow disappointment followed by disillusionment that it's not the same for them. I want to embrace them with open arms. I want to laugh over things we did together that happened 30 years ago. But I see their caution. I see their eyes looking at me with familiarity, knowing we share a history, but almost as if I'm a stranger they have to get to know again.

This part of having an acute memory is hard for me.

I remember things from our times together. The funny thing is that often they don't. One of my best friends admits to not remembering much from our school years together and she has been amazed at how I do remember them and the stories I tell her have brought back alot of her own memories for her. I often hear "Oh, I'd forgotten about that!"

I have read that memory will often lie to you. Often your brain will change memories to suit your own situation, beliefs, to block out something, but I have tested my memory enough using other people or records or diaries (I used to keep a diary) to believe that my memories, in the main, are accurate.

I'm still not sure whether it's a blessing or a curse. I'm glad of it in so many ways, because I can recall the lovely times, the fun times and the best part is that loved people who have passed away, like my grandmother, are still very, very fresh in my memory. I can hear her voice in my memory. I can see the lines on her face and I can recall conversations and food and clothes and smells and furniture and advice. It is 20 years since she went Home to Heaven, but to me it feels recent.

But the downside is that you remember the bad things too - or the sad things. As some of you know, this year I have had to deal with something in my past that cropped up externally of me, but has impacted on me. In processing this, I have sought outside counsel to talk through the issues, but my memory often works against me. Things are so vivid that they stand in the way of clarification, which I know sounds like a contradiction - but there is so much I remember - little details, conversations, events - that it's hard to sift through what is important, what is pertinent to my situation.

So, I don't think I have hyperthymesia, but I am researching what else it could be. I have a suspicion it could be genetic. My maternal grandfather had an extraordinary photographic memory. In fact he was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for saving the NZ government millions of dollars because of a design he was able to reproduce by memory.
Trouble is, I don't know if mine is photographic. I've never been able to use it like that in exams, for instance! It is more personal, and more pertinent to my own history, which is a facet of hyperthymesia. However, it is a fascinating subject and one I intend to explore more!


5 comments :

bettyl said...

The memory is an interesting thing. I cannot recall specific things (like on a test!) but if YOU bring it up, I can recall details. Guess that's why I liked multiple choice tests!

Diane N. said...

I think an excellent memory also makes a person prime to be a talented writer.

Sandy Addison said...

WOW Rach what an extraordinary gift! You never know when it may come in handy, maybe when your kids are older and they come back to you asking about certain times in their lives.

Poppy Q said...

Hi Rachel, I can remember lying in my cot and seeing the breeze blow the curtains in and out, and how to get to the front door from my cot. My grandad feeding me mashed veg and then moving day and sitting in the moving truck, all memories of before I was two (I'm 44 now).

Julie Q

Heather L. said...

Such an interesting subject.....a blessing and a curse to have such strong memory it seems. My memory is not quite as good as yours but I do love remembering things. And I am religious about a diary because I want to remember. :)

Loved the post about Alice -- she is so cute!! She and Laura are probably similar. :)

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