Do we all possess a continuous tape of our lives?
Darold A. Treffert, MD
There are a number of forms of extraordinary memory. There is factual memory: Kim Peek has memorized over 7600 books. There is numeric memory: Daniel Tammet memorized Pi to 22,514 digits. There is eidetic-like, photographic memory: Stephen Wiltshire memorized Rome from the air after a 45-minute helicopter ride over the city. There is musical memory: Leslie Lemke played back Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto after hearing it but once, for the first time. These types of savant memory are described elsewhere in detail on this site as “automatic” or “habit” memory modalities.
But extraordinary memory is not limited to savants. There is astounding recall of memorized facts and events in persons who are “mnemonists,” but not savants, such as Luria’s famous case of Mr. “S” who had such an extensive memory retention for whatever he experienced that he had to devise a formal method of “forgetting” at the end of each day lest he be continuously bombarded by retained images.
Then there is the so-called “cognitive” or “semantic,” along with “episodic,” memory that most persons use in their daily lives in which they sort out, and finally store (sometimes imperfectly) that which they wish (or try to) faithfully remember. In that manner more mundane memories are discarded and they disappear.
Or do they? Some speculate, based on Wilder Penfield’s work with brain probes as he looked for epileptogenic sites in conscious patients, that we have a continuous, effortless, surveillance-camera type recording stored in our brain, but not generally accessible, overshadowed by stored-with-effort semantic/cognitive and episodic memory mentioned above. As I have written elsewhere on this site, sodium amytal interviews, and indeed our dreams, suggest to me that there may well be such storage of the ordinary and mundane in areas not ordinarily accessible in day to day memory. And, interestingly, as some memories fade and disappear in some of my patients with Alzheimer’s disease, I have seen buried memories, often of the daily and mundane, surface much to the surprise, and delight, of close family members who “have never heard that story before.” It’s as if while some layers of memory fall victim to the Alzheimer’s process, more deeply buried layers are exposed. But ultimately, those too are wiped out by this insidious, progressive process.
Then comes along “The Man with an Uncanny Memory” as described in a Wisconsin State Journal article dated January 11, 2008. Brad Williams has “hyperthymestic syndrome”—extraordinary autobiographical recall for daily life events. He has a diary-like recall of ordinary, daily events that most everyone else would have discarded, or at least relegated to memory storage not ordinarily accessible. Except for memories before age 5, or days that were singularly uneventful, Brad’s brother Eric states, “Within reason, he can remember what happened every day of his life.” Eric has followed his brother closely on film for a number of years.
Brad’s unusual ability is being studied in formal fashion by a team of researchers at the University of California. It was this team that first reported the case of “A.J.,” who also showed exceptional autobiographical memory, in the scientific literature in their report “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering” in Neurocase, (2006) 12:35-49. That team included Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James McGaugh. It was the case of A.J. that led the team to coin a new term for this special kind of memory–hyperthymestic syndrome. Their article in Neurocase provides extensive detail of the characteristics of this special kind of memory, and the neuropsychological findings accompanying it.
Both Brad and A.J. are now being studied with brain imaging by the California team. Some preliminary findings, along with an excellent description of the tremendous memory for both the “momentous and mundane” that A.J. and Brad possess, can be found in a December 10, 2007 article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger .
Brad and A.J. are not savants, but they provide an interesting variation on normal memory capacity. No doubt other cases of extraordinary auto-biographical memory will surface over time, and with new functional imaging capability at hand, this unusual type of memory can be compared and contrasted to savant-memory connections and circuitry. And formal, standardized neuropsychological testing can provide more insights into brain memory capacity overall, with, I suspect, some new, interesting and surprising findings emerging as our voyage into the brain that has really only just begun, continues.