Having memories is pretty central to being human, but there are a few that most of us are happy to forget. The pain of heartbreak, the shame of an embarrassing moment, or the fear experienced during a traumatic event are all memories that come to mind as the kind we would prefer to leave in the past.
For one very small segment of society, however, the luxury of forgetting is not an option. Read on for eight things you probably didn’t know about the people affected by highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), a rare condition discovered in the early 2000s that makes those who have it remember nearly every detail of their lives, in some cases starting as early as 12 days after birth.
There are very few of them.
It’s kind of weird to think of all the undiscovered conditions out there offering people abilities that sound as if they’re straight out of an X-Men film.
It’s likely that until someone came forward saying they were experiencing some phenomenon and that phenomenon was then confirmed by scientists, it would never occur to most of us that these conditions were actually possible.
But we’re learning new things every day, and what we’re learning is unbelievable…until it is believable.
Somewhere around 60 to 80 people worldwide are known to have HSAM, although exact numbers are still a little murky. As Mental Floss reports: “At this time, there are only a handful of individuals in the world who have ever been diagnosed with hyperthymesia, and scientists still don’t know exactly how it works.
“Some studies have found that hyperthymesiacs [a term for those with the condition] might have variations in the structure of their brains, while others argue that it might have behavioral components. However, since so few people are diagnosed with HSAM, it’s difficult to study the condition.”
They feel things more intensely than others.
It’s possible that one of the causes for this hyperawareness of detail, specifically of internal worlds, is the predisposition to being highly sensitive.
“The other HSAMers I have met seem to share similar traits: the need for approval, seeking attention, putting themselves out there a little bit, maybe being a little sensitive to criticism and having issues with depression and closure,” hyperthymesiac Joey DeGrandis told New York magazine in an interview about his own life and his experiences with others like him.
“They are all contributing members of society and it doesn’t seem like any of us are so hindered that we’ve ceased to function like a normal person, but there is a commonality in that we seem to be a little more sensitive and we sometimes have trouble with our emotions and we can be more prone to depression and it must be related to the fact that we remember in the way we do.”
They have rich fantasy lives.
Part of the HSAM package is the intensity of experience, not only in the sense of being deeply emotionally affected by events, but also of being keenly attuned to sensory impressions.
“I’m extremely sensitive to sounds, smells and visual detail,” Nicole Donohue, an HSAMer who has taken part in many studies about the condition, tells the BBC. “I definitely feel things more strongly than the average person.”
Indeed, researcher Dr. Lawrence Patihis, who works in the psychology department of the University of Southern Mississippi studying memory of past emotions, memory of long-term relationships, memory malleability, trauma and memory, dissociation, eyewitness memory, and long-term episodic memory, found after profiling 20 people with HSAM that they scored especially high on “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,” reports the BBC.
They weren’t always like this.
While some particularly clickbait-y news outlets—we’re looking at you Daily Mail—couldn’t help but use headlines like “Woman, 27, who can recall EVERY DAY of her life” and “Woman with HSAM remembers every day of life from birth,” they are not literally accurate.
Even the woman they’re writing about, Rebecca Sharrock—whose memories go back jaw-droppingly far—does not remember every single day of her life since birth. (She does, however, remember everything from 12 days after birth, which is, in our opinion, equally impressive.)
Many with HSAM didn’t get it until years into their lives. For example, artist Nima Veiseh didn’t begin remembering everything until one very moving experience, after which he says he could tell you anything.
The moment was “15 December 2000, when he met his first girlfriend at his best friend’s 16th birthday party,” the BBC reports. “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.”
Breakups can be extra hard for them.
You know that saying about time healing all wounds? I keep a gratitude journal, and most mornings I list three things I’m thankful for. During one period following the end of a relationship, the word “forgetting” appeared several times. Imagine, though, trying to get over a breakup if you had HSAM.
As DeGrandis tells New York magazine:
“…[I]f it’s a bad breakup or unrequited love then the memories of that linger and hurt when I think about them—especially if there’s no closure. I’m thinking, What did I do? I’m forced to pick back through it. I can remember the last time I saw the person. I can remember where we were.
“I can remember a funny face they made or a thought or a feeling however fleeting or however lasting it was; I can remember those things. Even if the person ended up doing something wrong or ditches me, the initial positive memory is so strong it’s hard for me to separate: ‘How can you be this way now, when I remember you so vividly as something different?'”
Their memories often relate to their passions, but they can also cause depression.
There are certain consistencies with how folks with HSAM tend to remember the details of their lives—namely, that there is a quality of “emotionality” attached to them, as opposed to just factual details. But when it comes to which factual details they’ll remember, they’re often dependent on the personal preferences of the individual with HSAM.
In his interview with New York magazine, DeGrandis talked about something he picked up on during his first meeting with other HSAMers, for a 60 Minutes special:
“We noticed that some of us are better at remembering certain things and it aligns with passions. Marilu Henner is into fashion, so she can remember when she bought all the pairs of shoes she owns. Another was a big football fan so he remembered scores.”
There was another commonality. “The thing we all agreed on was the fact that at some point in our lives we had gone through depression, or had some form of it,” DeGrandis says. “It wasn’t so much like ‘Oh, we’re severely depressed.’ It was more that we have struggled with, or currently struggle with, feeling depressed and feeling weighed down and we believe it may be because of certain memories we are unable to let go of.”
They are typically really good with dates.
Some hyperthymesiacs’ exceptional ability to recall information about specific dates—including what day of the week it was in a given year—has led many to draw comparisons to people with autism, but researchers have found no connection.
HSAMer Jill Price “can label what day of the week virtually any calendar date fell on,” reports Mental Floss. “Given a specific date, like ‘March 19, 2003,’ a 20-year-old hyperthymesiac called HK can remember that it was a Wednesday, what the weather was like, and what he did that day from getting up to going to bed.”
DeGrandis explains his superpower thusly:
“There is an algorithm you can use to figure out the day of a week, but I don’t know it and I still don’t know how to use it. It’s just a calculation that my mind does and I don’t even understand how.
“It’s very hard to explain how I get there but it’s almost like I’m standing over the year, actually looking at the whole year and then I home in on a day and sometimes I link it up to another year when that date was the same day of the week.”
They can still have false memories.
False memories are relatively common among people without HSAM. “I would even go as far as saying that memory is largely an illusion,” Julia Shaw writes in Scientific American.
“This is because our perception of the world is deeply imperfect, our brains only bother to remember a tiny piece of what we actually experience, and every time we remember something we have the potential to change the memory we are accessing.”
But, surprisingly, even having a condition defined by “highly superior” memory does not make you immune to remembering things that didn’t actually happen. The Guardian, describing the HSAM study by Dr. Patihis, writes:
“HSAM subjects were equally likely as the control group to claim words that had not appeared on a list had appeared, they showed a higher overall propensity to form false memories of a photographic slideshow, and they were equally likely to mistakenly report that they had seen non-existent video footage of the United 93 plane crash on 9/11.”
Some of the subjects with HSAM were not too happy to hear this, because “having accurate memories is central to their identities.”