I’ve been working on a book for many months now where the hero remembers her past vividly, reliving each event as the child she was and simultaneously as the adult she’s become. However, she also finds that her imagination, as well as her foreknowledge, is at work in the reconstruction of every scene. For me it’s always seemed obvious that imagination and memory are intermingled, that they are even rooted in one another.
But now, it seems there are people who possess perfect memories. In an article in the December 17 New York Post, violinist Louise Owen describes her experience of remembering as “time travel.” “As soon as you say that date, I’m instantly there,” she said. “I know how I felt, I know what happened that day. It’s as if it happened five minutes ago, as opposed to 22 years ago.”
Louise Owen was one of six people with superior autobiographical memories on a recent CBS Sixty Minutes. Labeled “hyperthymestics,” they may be the only people who remember that way. Certainly, they’re the only ones anyone knows about so far.
Some articles, including the one in the Post, refer to superior autobiographical memory as computer-like, but that’s not how the rememberers describe it. One of the six, actress Marilu Henner, says ”I am there again… seeing things visually as I would have that day.” Another, known only as A.J., describes the spring of ‘81: “… you know I can really physically feel it. I’m just there, like so intensely sometimes it really hurts.”
That’s not like any computer memory I’ve encountered. More like a movie—and A.J. compares it to watching one. But what a personal movie! It’s what the rememberer saw and heard, smelled and tasted.
Some of the six people are compulsive in not-very-important-ways. But by and large they’re normal. Their memories are as slip shod as most people’s when they try to memorize history dates or poetry. Scans show that certain areas of their brains (the caudate nuclei and a portion of the temporal lobe) are abnormally large, and further investigation will undoubtedly tell us more about how all of us remember.
The 60 Minutes segment asks why so few people have superior autobiographical memories while most of us don’t. Why isn’t it the other way around? The subjects of the segment are mostly pleased by, even grateful for, their unusual state. And would most of us, given the opportunity to grow this kind of memory, take it? I don’t have to think: I would, and in a flash.
However, it’s also true that I find that these perfect memories disturb my understanding of the imagination and of the variations in perspective that make all our memories of events relative. It’s always seemed to me that remembering is a loose-jointed function, that it is inherently vague and that different persons’ memories of the same event can vary widely. If that’s so for memory as most of us know it, what is it for the person who remembers perfectly? Is their perfect memory only perfect from their own perspective? Apart from the date and the factual particulars of a memory, can anything past be perfectly known? And, if we agree that the perfect memory is also a personal and subjective one, how does it survive without change when it belongs to someone who has evolved with the years, someone who has had other experiences that change the meaning and texture of the remembered experience?
I’m not sure truly perfect remembering could ever be like a movie or any objective record of the past. Insofar as the memories of hyperthymestics are perfect, I think they’re also much more complicated, much more delicate, much more profound than any of these reports demonstrate.
But it would be interesting to sing Auld Lang Syne and remember everything and everybody with a superior autobiographical memory.
Happy New Year everyone!