Skepticism

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

Not that I’d know, of course.

Every now and again a new disease or condition pops up, one that is so bizarre it is as though it was invented by an overly creative sadist with too much time on his hands. Which, if you believe in an interventionist god, maybe it was.

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Today’s is hyperthymestic syndrome. An article from ABC News describes a woman who posseses perfect memory. Literally. Ask her what happened on November 6, 1988, and she’ll tell you the day of the week, news headlines, and what she had for breakfast. Her condition, which thus far appears to be unique to her, is being studied by researchers at the University of California in Irvine.

The woman is known only as “AJ,” and we only know about her because she graciously turned herself over to neurologists who have put her through exhaustive testing in the hopes of learning more about her, thereby learning more about memory in general and how our brains operate. The brain is like deep space — we have a general idea of what’s going on, but there’s still a helluva lot left to discover. The only difference is that unlike deep space, we carry our brains around with us in our noggins. That should be obvious, but I thought I’d point it out anyway so that I could use the word “noggin.”

The article linked to above does a good job of giving us an overview of where the research is at the moment, but (possibly due to the woman’s desire for anonymity) we have no real idea of how this affects her everyday life. Researchers point out that she isn’t like savants of the past, who may remember every detail about the invention of Corn Pops but nothing about how to operate a blender. She appears to function normally, yet maintain a completely accurate memory about everything, whether the memory makes an emotional impact on her or not.

I can’t imagine many fates worse. Maybe that’s being dramatic, but think about it — she remembers every dumb thing she ever blurted out at a dinner party. Every scraped knee. Every moment of every crappy relationship.

On the flipside, she would also remember all of the happy little details that we tend to lose track of as we grow older. I wonder if it all balances out? I’d love to have lunch with her to find out whether she thinks it’s a blessing or a curse, or neither or both; and whether she’d give all the memories back if she could.

If you had the option, would you choose to have a perfect memory?

I believe the butterfly in the photo is named Parnassius mnemosyne orientalis, but I’m not sure why. BugGirl?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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13 Comments

  1. Would I choose to have a perfect memory? Perhaps. Depends on how recall would work. I mean, we remember a lot as it is, but it's not constantly present at the front of our thoughts. Sometimes something pops up when you don't want it to (like the stomach ripper in Alien while you're trying to find birth a wonderful experience), and sometimes you know you know it, but it won't appear where it's useful. ("This is terribly embarassing, but I've temporarily forgotten your name. Would you still like to stay for breakfast?") So if I can recall stuff at will, while the amount of unwanted crap popping into my mind stays the same, or decreases, sure, I'd like a perfect memory.

  2. Wow. Perfect memory. I don't know what I would do with that. I could certainly be A LOT more organized and be a better debater. Like you said though, I think that there are a large number of other things I'd rather not remember.

    I think you'd have to be either completely insane or the most stable person on the planet to have a gift/curst like this.

  3. I think I'd pass on it. I imagine you could reach a threshold where thought would be near-impossible because any idea would immediately trigger a cascade of other, related, memories. It would be like trying to knit in the midst of a hurricane.

  4. I would love to have a perfect memory but only after I say the word "Snifflegibbets" and then not after I said it a second time.

    Drek hit the nail on the head when he said it would be debilitating to have a perfect memory all the time. I read about such a person once. He couldn't even carry on a normal conversation because he would be constantly assailed by memories. He was forced to perform memory tricks in bars to earn a living.

  5. Does she only remember events, or can she remember every detail of everything she's read and learned? Does she remember the name of every person she's ever met, including the clerk at the gas station where she got gas in 1988? Does she remember what the gas clerk was wearing?

    What does perfect memory actually mean? We only are aware of so much that goes on around us, so I wonder. She obviously has a better memory than almost everyone. But, in addition, how can anyone tell if she's just making the shit up?

  6. Interesting answers. I'm not sure of exactly what she would remember — you make a good point, DD. And like you guys, I also wonder if she gets a flood of memories recalled every time she blinks, or if it's all just stored there, waiting for a specific conscious decision to bring it up.

    And boo on you guys who take the easy way out: "Sure, if I could have a perfect memory but never be bothered by it." Bah!

  7. Gah! posted this in the wrong place. Sorry!

    I looked up your insect–it is a russian butterfly, and first named by Linnaeus:
    http://rusinsects.com/p-mnem.htm

    So, unless he made some notes in 1758, it may be difficult to say just what he had in mind!

    Also of interest is that this butterfly is Red Listed for Eastern Europe. (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) )

  8. Well, I looked up the story and she remembers news stories and the weather, and those things can be verified so obviously she's not just making things up. Still, I wouldn't call it "perfect" memory. That's pretty meaningless. We dont' even know what things are outside of our awareness on a moment by moment basis (our blind spot is an easy example, but there are so many other things we miss because of our focus or just because our brain has to control sensory overload…just think of how many times you drive home and don't recall how you got there because your visual cortext was imagining whatever else you were thinking about….)

    It is an interesting story, though.

    I can't decide. As a writer, I wish my memory were better, but on the other hand, deciding what to leave out is already hard enough! It would be impossible if every detail were at my fingertips.

  9. I'd like to have a magician look over the research and make sure she's not doing a mentalist act. I've seen Banacheck do even more amazing things.

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