The other day on Sixty Minutes, Leslie Stall interviewed quite an extraordinary, and rare group of people. When I heard that the segment was on memory I got excited. Memory, or lack thereof, has been a big question mark with me.
The five people examined, two women and three men, have a variance or perhaps a gift called Superior Autobiographical Memory. Like the terminology indicates, they’re capable of recalling pretty much every single day of their life. They can remember the banal, uneventful events of any particular moment in time from their distant or near past.
I sat there, absolutely fascinated as Leslie interviewed them and asked them question from days gone by. “Oh yes!” the man replied, “that was March 3rd, 1994 when I stubbed my toe…” He was a Pittsburgh Steelers aficionado, a die-hard fan who remembered each play of every game against…I can’t remember whom or when. But you can be sure, he did. He knew exactly what the strange look on the quarterback’s…or was it the running back’s face meant that day. One of the female Superior Autobiographical Memory wunderkinder was Marie Lou Henner, the actress from the show Taxi. Among other things, she connected dates to the pair of shoes she wore. Now that really impressed me.
Each of the five responded with such vivid detail, including their emotional state during the specific past occurrence. They all agreed that they could categorize events in their head and organize them according to whatever criteria they chose, (Yeah! You go Marie Lou, classify those shoes!). They were able to practice mental gymnastics with their phenomenal memory.
While I was watching and listening to them, suddenly it dawned on me. I’m the exact opposite. I have even less memory than the “normal” people to which I like to think I belong. I blame multiple surgeries. My theory is, that with each longer stretch under anesthesia, I’ve lost some of my history. I have crater-size gaps in my past, but I don’t know what they are because…well…I don’t remember. However, I do remember a great deal about my illness (hence the autobiography). And, since my illness took up most of my life, ergo I remember most of my life. (Whew! An elegant save…).
After putting the five through several tests, including an MRI, scientists discovered that there’s a reason for their über memory. Their cortical nucleus is a lot larger than ours. This particular area of the brain creates adrenaline, the substance that increases whenever we have an emotional reaction. In other words, if we feel embarrassed, sad, excited, hurt, angry or any spike of emotion, our adrenaline levels rise. When that happens, we tend to remember those particular events. Basically more adrenaline means more memory.
Now imagine always having higher levels of adrenaline. That is the case in our five candidates. So while we “normal” people have selective memory, they have constant memory. And I, low man on the “normal” memory totem pole, have my husband. Without him I don’t think I’d ever remember where my glasses were.
Hmmm, I thought, I’m not so sure I would want to remember that much of my past. Like I need to bring up anxiety, fear and pain again? I don’ think so. I’m thrilled that pain is the first thing you forget. Serioulsy.”
And by the way, doesn’t having this awesome memory kind of take the fun out of…remembering? Isn’t it great when someone reminds you about something in your past and you can exclaim, “Yeah! Wow! Now I remember!!” I actually say that a lot.
Our five candidates also displayed characteristic mostly associated with autism. Scientists discovered OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder) behavior in them. Marie Lou has a closet full of shoes neatly placed on shelves, one facing front, and the other facing back, so that she may see the heal and toe. A must for her. The Pittsburgh Steelers aficionado washes his hands much more often than any of us would. Oddly enough, the three men were all left handed, while the two women were right handed. Even stranger is the fact that out of the five, only Marie Lou was married. Currently she’s on husband number four. I’m guessing it’s hard to stay married when you can’t loose an argument. The rest were single.
Despite these somewhat strange patterns, they were quite pleased with their ability. Well, of course they’re pleased, I thought, because duh, it is what it is. They don’t know what it means NOT to remember, just as we, normal folks, don’t know what it means to remember every day of our life.
When the show ended I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So they have boundless memory, and I have boundless forgetfulness. Who’s better off? They think they are, and I’m pretty convinced that I am. In the end, it’s best to be happy with what you have. While I’m engrossed in learning language number eight, I'm sure I'll forget where I’ve placed my glasses, and my husband will have to remind me where they are. That's what you call real selective memory.