Remembering everything?

Memory searchers suffer from amnesia!

Posted Dec 22, 2010

On December 19, 60 Minutes aired a segment on "The gift of endless memory." Leslie Stahl crowed, "There has been a discovery in the field of memory recently, so new that you won't find it in any textbook." The claim of novelty is greatly exaggerated.

The "discovery" is being called "superior autobiographical memory" which basically means that adults can remember every day of their lives since childhood in as much detail as though it were yesterday.

Ms. Stahl certainly provided plenty of detail to illustrate this remarkable capacity from five memory whizzes, including her friend actress Marilu Henner whom she brought to the attention of the memory researchers.

Unusual feats of memory are nothing new, of course. Most involved savants such as Kim Peek the inspiration for the movie Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman. Peek was of below average intelligence like most of the other savants.

The claim to novelty on 60 Minutes is that these are individuals of normal intelligence who remember every significant event in their lives. This is potentially of great practical importance in dealing with memory loss by Alzheimer patients, not to mention bringing the rest of us up to speed to the point that we could compete in trivia games like Jeopardy.

My jaw dropped when I heard the claim that you won't find near-perfect memory in textbooks. Ironically, the leading Russian pioneer of memory research, Aleksandr R. Luria, described just such a case of near total recall in his subject Solomon Shereshevsky who worked as a journalist and was of normal intelligence (1,2).

Shereshevsky is credited with total recall of events in his life and could remember long boring speeches verbatim. His memories were so vivid that they distracted him from his current activities and he had the unusual propensity for synaesthesia, or equating information received in different senses. His recall of a list of nonsense syllables - memorized for Luria - was as good 14 years later as the day he had learned them.

Remembering everything may come in handy on game shows and for exams, but proves a mixed blessing. Shereshevsky and the five people featured in 60 Minutes are so preoccupied with the intensity of their memories that attention to the present can suffer. It may also be no accident that none of the five had stable marriages. Living with someone who never forgets, and therefore rarely loses an argument, can be a drag.

Despite being featured in many psychology textbooks, including introductory works, and specialized books in cognitive psychology, Shereshevsky was passed over by 60 Minutes. This is hardly surprising. After all, you can't expect journalists to know everything about psychology textbooks, even if they pretend to.

What really floored me was the fact that Larry Cahill and his coworkers at U.C. Irvine went along. One, James McGaugh, stated: "It could be a whole new chapter. We think we knew a lot and all of a sudden these people come and display a kind of memory that we've never seen before, and we have to say, ‘Woo, what is that about.?" Woo indeed!

If Cahill and Mc Gaugh had given due credit to Luria, their "superior autobiographical memory" would not have been "so new that you won't find it in any textbook." It would have been just as fascinating anyway. Who do they think they are fooling?

1. Luria, A. R. (1968). The mind of a mnemonist: A little book about a vast memory. New York: Basic.
2. Goldstein, B. R. (2010). Cognitive psychology (p. 218). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.