What would it be like to be able to remember anything you ever learned? Would it be a blessing or a curse?
Beginning in the early 20th century, psychologists have identified numerous cases of people with extraordinary memories that allow them to learn and retain new information with total accuracy. The most famous of these "mnemonists" as they have been called, was Solomon Veniaminovitch Sherashevski, the subject of Alexander Luria's classic book, The Mind of a Mnemonist.
Identified only as "S" in Luria's book, Sherashevski could recall an amazing number of facts due to his talent for eidetic imagery, the synesthesia that allowed him to recall sights, sounds, and smells, and the numerous mnemonic strategies he relied on. Sadly enough, despite being able to make a living for a while as a memory expert, he seemed to have significant difficulty living a normal life due to his inability to forget anything he learned and the continual daydreaming caused by his constant recall. At last report, he was working as a cab driver before fading into obscurity.
And there have certainly been other mnemonists since Sherashevski's time, many of whom actively compete in national and international memory championships and who spend much of their time training their memories using visual and auditory recall techniques. Certainly, the memory feats they are capable of seem astounding enough, including being able to recall the order of all 52 cards in a deck or reciting the value of pi to 22,000 decimal places. Oddly enough though, research suggests that these professional mnemonists are no better than the average population when it comes to remembering events out of their own lives.
But there are also people whose memories seem to work very differently. For reasons that are still unclear, certain people seem to be able to recall virtually every moment of their lives dating back to early childhood, a condition more commonly known as hyperthymesia. They are also able to recall almost any public event that occurred on a given date so long as it has a personal significance for them.
As opposed to mnemonists, people with hyperthymesia don't rely on any mnemonic techniques to retain autobiographical memories, it seems to happen automatically for them. While only a handful of these cases have been formally studied by cognitive scientists, laboratory testing using clinical tests of learning and memory show no real indication that they are any better than average when it comes to learning new information. In a sense, this makes them polar opposites to mnemonists.
Which is what makes a recent article in the journal Neuropsychology so remarkable. Written by Jason Brandt and Arnold Bakker of the John Hopkins School of Medicine, the article presents a case study of a 63-year-old man identified only as "MM" who has an extraordinary memory for personal experiences as well as the ability to learn and retain new information with almost perfect detail.
But his amazing recall didn't seem to have much of an impact on his life otherwise. He didn't seem to do well in school and dropped out of college after the first year. In fact, he said that he only became aware of his memory skills at the age of "29 and 9 months" when he realized that he could recall events from American history with amazing accuracy.
MM first gained media attention back in the 1980s when he spotted a dating error in the inscription of a national landmark (for which newspapers dubbed him the "Amazing Memory Man.") Despite this brief moment of fame, he has largely lived alone most of his life and he also had significant difficulty holding on to any job for long. In fact, at the time the Neuropsychology article came out, he was subsisting on Social Security payments. He only came to the attention of the authors after he heard Jason Brandt speaking on a radio program about memory disorders. This inspired MM to contact Brandt and offer himself for research into his own remarkable memory.
When he was first interviewed, MM demonstrated his total recall on a wide variety of subjects, particularly athletic events (athletics were particularly significant for him since he was a former long-distance runner). He could also provide the names of all Olympic medal winners (and losers), along with their winning times and scores for any given year named.
His perfect recall for dates allowed him to name important events that occurred on any date provided. For example, when provided with the date of May 18, he stated that it was "the birthdate of both Pope John Paul II, in 1920, and Baltimore Oriole [baseball player] Brooks Robinson, in Arkansas, in 1937. It was also that date that the Mt. Saint Helens volcano erupted in 1980.”
There were still some intriguing gaps in his memory, however, including being unable to recall anything that happened to him before the age of seven. Though his recall resembled what had been seen in people with hyperthymesia, his memories weren't quite as vivid. Also, unlike what has been found in many other people with unusual memories, he wasn't on the autism spectrum and also showed no signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. While he did have some history of anxiety and depression, this seemed largely under control with medication. As well, unlike professional mnemonists, he had no idea why his memory worked the way it did and, as far as he knew, everything happened automatically.
In the neuropsychological testing that followed, MM performed extremely well on many of the memory tests he was given. On one test, which involved identifying faces of famous people, he was not only able to name them all but provide their birth dates (and death dates where applicable). He also recalled all of the best picture winners for Academy Awards from the 1940s up to the present though he was unable to recall one of the recent winners ("Birdman"). While his recall on these tests wasn't uniformly perfect, he still far exceeded the usual test norms.
On the other hand, his performance on tests of new learning capacity seemed no better than average, something very similar to what has been found in people with hyperthymesia. The researchers also arranged for MM to undergo brain imaging which found a few unusual features in his brain anatomy, particularly in his left temporal lobe near the hippocampus. Overall, however, his brain seemed completely unremarkable and there was no way to tell whether those few differences found played a role in his memory or not.
But despite his superior memory, it still wasn't clear why he had done so poorly in school or been able to hold a job for long. While his IQ fell in the normal range (except for problems with processing speed), he showed no other real problems that might affect his ability to work. Aside from his brief media stint as the "Amazing Memory Man," his life seemed completely unaffected by his remarkable memory.
While have certainly been other examples of people with amazing memories who have managed to carve out exceptional careers, including mathematician John von Neumann and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, they tended to be less common than cases like MM and Solomon Sherashevski
So, is there some way to explain the remarkable memory abilities demonstrated by people like MM? Though Brandt and Bakker presented results suggesting that the interconnections between different parts of MM's brain, including his hippocampus, were much more efficient than in ordinary brains, they concluded that there still isn't enough information to make any real conclusions at this point.
They do suggest that MM, along with other people like him who show unusual "wild talents" that allow them to perform amazing mental feats, don't seem to have brains that are any different from anybody else's except in very subtle ways. As new case studies become available, we may slowly learn more about what makes these brains so unusual.
Which also raises some intriguing questions as well. If it were possible to reproduce what MM and other like him are capable of, is this necessarily something people would want? We already seem to be living in an era of information glut given the amount of information at our fingertips. What would it mean to be literally unable to forget any fact or detail you might pick up over the years, whether you want to remember or not? As the mysteries surrounding human memory are slowly revealed, finding answers to these questions may become more important than ever.
Brandt, J., & Bakker, A. (2017, December 21). Neuropsychological Investigation of “The Amazing Memory Man”. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/neu0000410