Recently, a segment of the news program 60 Minutes profiled individuals (such as actress Marilu Henner) who have HSAM, highly superior autobiographical memory. Name a date in their lifetime, a person with HSAM can tell you what they were doing, where they were, and often very specific details such as what they had to eat on that exact date. Even if it was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s a fascinating ability. But what I found most interesting in the story was their descriptions of how their condition affected them emotionally and socially. Some of it felt very familiar.
It’s something that caught my attention because, as I noted in a recent post, many of us on the spectrum experience more prolific and detailed early memories than peers who are not on the spectrum. Like the individuals interviewed with HSAM, these memories can be as vivid as reliving the event. However, in my case, there appear to be specific differences. I cannot say that my volume of recall is anything close to that of these individuals. And, however detailed a memory might be, I am rarely ever able to connect it with a specific date.
I’ve thought a lot about why that is, and I suspect it has to do with how I process information. To remember a piece of information, the person would need to be aware of it in the first place. But, as I’ve written before, I tend to have troubles with time. I think primarily visually and seem to have very little room in my mind for random bits of information, especially for things like dates and times that are a moving target, constantly in flux. So, unless I have a calendar in front of me, or have reason to check it on my phone, it tends to slip away.
This little memory difference causes me a number social challenges, not the least of which is with birthdays. Most people don’t think about it, but the social task we label as “remembering someone’s birthday” isn’t just remembering the date of that person’s birthday. You have to also realize that today’s date coincides with that date. I can memorize facts like birth dates easily, but the second part causes me issues. It also means I have trouble with ages, including my own. What kind of a person can’t even tell you her own age? Typically, I just take the fifth.
For many, what is described in HSAM is unbelievable. It’s so different from how most remember. But, for those who accept that such differences exist, it seems to make more sense to people than my particular profile of memory. People tend to see memory as monolithic. A good memory is a good memory. The reality is that there is more diversity in how memory works than many realize. Unfortunately, the biases people have about memory and how it functions can have social impacts. Peoples’ abilities can be misjudged. Or they may be mistrusted altogether.
A few years ago, I read an article from New York Magazine which profiled the memoirist Augusten Burroughs. I was struck by the tone of mistrust throughout the article, and whenever the author noted that his “internal polygraph” was “pinging,” the mechanism of memory was the trigger.
He described a conversation with Mr. Burroughs in his old neighborhood:
“‘All these little details come back when I’m here,’ he says. ‘It’s like there’s a whole other time layered over this one. And the people that lived here still live here for me, still walk the streets.’ He says he remembers, for instance, watching a painter—’navy shirt, white pants, brown belt, black boots’—painting a door across from his old apartment. ‘White drop cloth spread out over the stone steps,’ he says. ‘The way the light hit him.’
My internal polygraph begins to twitch here, subtly, because what sort of freakishly bloated cortex retains, for eighteen years, the color of a random workman’s belt? This is exactly the kind of improbably authenticating detail Burroughs has been accused of inventing in his books—not a big deal on its own, perhaps, but patch enough of them together and your life story is suddenly more imagined than remembered. ‘The way the light hit him’? Seriously?...Who can remember the color of a stranger’s belt, and the precise angle of the back corner of an old movie theater’s lobby, but not the number of his own apartment, or any of the movies he saw? What kind of memory is that?”
He may question it, but my own memory is a great deal like that. Light and color are exactly the type of thing that would catch my attention and stick. One of my strongest early memories is watching the glint off a sparkly sticker as I twisted and turned it in the sun, standing at the edge of a fairground with the fair going full swing some feet away. What kind of kid remembers light flickering off a sticker over the rest of attractions your average fair has to offer? What about the rides? The sweets? The games? What kind of memory remembers the light glinting off the sticker, but not the address of the last house the person lived in? Mine.
Interestingly enough, Augusten Burroughs himself has drawn parallels between his own memory and the memories of those on the spectrum. His brother, John Elder Robison, is also on the autism spectrum. In an interview for Big Think, he has stated that they’ve wondered “...if something in my brain is similar to what is in his brain and that’s why in fact we have this peculiar memory where our childhood is very accessible to us.”
In the same interview, he also tackles another question that I’ve been thinking about for some time. Is there a psychological cost to having such vivid memories? What happens when you can’t forget the most traumatic experiences in your life? When they’re as vivid for you today as they were 30 years ago? When asked in the interview if vivid memory was “an affliction,” he answered:
“It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s very vivid, so when I was writing ‘[A] Wolf at the Table,’ for example, my fingers were cold. It was like I was writing outside in the winter and my heart would be pounding and I would be scared. It was very real. Those memories come back and they come back in full force and it can be overwhelming so that’s one edge of the sword; that’s the side of the sword that cuts.“
60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl asked a similar question of the youngest of her interviewees, who is 10. She asked, “What is the hardest part of having this kind of memory?” His response? “The worst thing is that I can remember every bad thing that happened to me…. I remember this from ‘The Lion King.’ ‘Leave the past behind.’ But I can't do that.” How does this affect him interpersonally?
His parents describe their heartache when, on a summer vacation trip, he woke up and told them, “‘This was a really bad day last year because you yelled at me.’” How does it affect personal relationships when you remember bad things others have done that they no longer remember themselves? Or if they only remember it as Lesley Stahl indicated she does, as a “two-dimensional memory” without much emotion attached to it?
When Ms. Stahl asked the adult interviewees whether they hold grudges, one of them, Bill Brown, answered, “I do, and I shouldn’t. The frustrating part is when you know that you know that you know that somebody did something, and they won’t admit it.” When asked if it was hard to “let people off the hook,” he replied, “It is, because we’re all familiar with the phrase ‘to forgive or forget’ and we can….one out of two isn’t bad.”
So, while it seems this difference in abilities clearly has some benefits, but there can be a dark side. A December segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” discussed this dark side. In fact, it noted that HSAM came to light when the original subject contacted researchers because, “The emotions evoked by remembering bad things troubled her.” A challenge noted in the NPR piece is how their form of memory is misinterpreted by their loved ones. Bill Brown said:
"’Just because I remember something that you did wrong doesn't mean that I still hold it against you,’ he says. ‘But it's taken me a long while to realize that folks without my ability probably don't understand that distinction. Because after all, if you're bringing it up, the logic from the other side would be: You must still hold it against me.’
This is not, in fact, the case, he says. ‘It has more to do with wanting you to be honest in your dealings.’
What he eventually realized was that most of the people he talks to are being as honest as they know how to be. ‘They just don't necessarily remember.’”
This is something I’ve also experienced. There are times that I’ve wished that I could record key conversations so that I could play back an interaction that a person denies occurred, or claims happened differently. But, of course, most people frown on that. It can become very disturbing, because you find your own perceptions and memories challenged on an ongoing basis. Memories that are as vivid and real, as one person said, as the memories most people have of traumatic events like 9/11.
Do you remember what you were doing on 9/11? What if someone told you it happened differently, or that it didn’t happen at all? How disorienting would that feel? It can feel very much like gaslighting, especially if the disagreement has to do with something painful someone else did. You wonder if they’re editing their own memories to suit their own ego, or if they really don’t remember it, or just remember it inaccurately? You also can’t help but question your own experience. After all, no one’s memory is infallible, not even people with HSAM. Recent research has shown that they are just as likely as anyone to have false memories.
How do you deal which such differences, when they crop up? When memory itself is at question, and each of you is convinced that your memories are the correct ones? If your memory is in fact more prolific to others, do acknowledge it? For myself, I’ve learned to prelude most of my stories and factual statements with the phrase, “Did I tell you about ___________?” even if I know that I have. I tell them only if they say no. This seems to keep people from feeling “lectured at,” but it bothers me a bit, because it feels dishonest. Why should it be shameful to remember?
As we come to learn more about memory, I hope that researchers will dig more deeply into the emotional and social impacts of differences in memory. Based on the accounts given in the 60 Minutes and NPR segments, it would very much help people with HSAM, and based on the similarities observed between how their memories work and those of us on the spectrum, it may help a great deal more.