By John Martin A. Soriano
It was just a normal midnight of April 15, 2020, in the midst of this pandemic, when I first watched the Korean drama series named “Find Me in Your Memory,” which was about a firm and famous news anchor who kept on interviewing high-ranked people and wasn’t afraid of revealing their dark secrets live on national TV.
All of those happened because of his unusual cognitive disorder named hyperthymesia, a condition wherein an individual can remember abnormally large amount of memories in complete, vivid detail. Simply put, he can remember anything at all—but cannot forget anything easily. Apparently, there are only 60 notable cases of this condition as of April 2016.
I fantasized the concept of having a memory bank that is superbly exceptional than others after finishing the series. Who wouldn’t? What if I can get near-perfect grades on my subjects with it? What if I can remember all the books that I am reading?
It took me a while to reflect on it because I was fixated on its romantic aspect and its fast-paced plot: what if I, or someone I know, have hyperthymesia? What if everyone has hyperthymesia? I am a person of random thoughts, and the possibility of hyperthymesia was a thought I have spent much time pondering on.
But, come to think of it, it is risky to live with it – especially today.
We can all desire to have high scores and results, but in hyperthymesia, it is not always the case.
Taking exams or tests in high school, college, or even for our jobs can be a hassle since it requires studying and reviewing for hours, days, or even months! It is a forever burden to review but is imperative if we want to pass our exams. Who has not fantasized having excellent memory?
Hyperthymesia now sounds lucrative, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it has its major caveats.
Hyperthymesia is studied and is said to be “selective.” Although those with hyperthymesia have what is called highly superior autobiographical memory (or HSAM), they seem to lack in executive functioning and anomalous lateralization of the brain hemispheres due to uncontrollable memory function – making their brains highly selective on what memories it could recall clearly. Simply, some memories are ultimately vivid, but the other subjects are faded or vague.
In an article of BBC, one even said that “sometimes, he can’t remember an event from five minutes ago but can vividly describe a detail from January 22, 2008.” Dr. Darold Treffert’s findings in Wisconsin Medical Society explained hyperthymesia is also only related mostly to memory, so it is not usually included for well-rounded excellence which the savant syndrome – a rare condition which one can have serious mental disabilities but have acquired augmented intellect – brings. Dr. James McGaugh, in an article from People with Potential, said that these people only excelled in recalling details of their lives due to their stellar memory.
Hyperthymesia doesn’t always bring the A+’s. Still, one can remember varieties of vividly described memories because of their extraordinary brain.
It is not always a solution to desire having hyperthymesia, but those who exhibit it found it somehow useful eventually for taking notes and stuff for evidential circumstances. In the context of the Korean drama series that I have recently watched, he used it as a weapon to expose dubious pasts by having an observant mind in investigations. Similarly, those who are diagnosed with this condition are said to have “detailed” memories of their surroundings: they can easily remember every painting and galleries of various museums and libraries.
Take note that memories are also connected to emotions. Our emotional responses are integrated by the brain and we tend to react to one memory that our brain has because of emotions the brain has associated the memory with. With the amygdala, our emotions can be filled with adrenaline when the amygdala receives a message from the brain brought by a memory. Additionally, according to Brandon Ally’s speculation study named “A case of hyperthymesia: Rethinking the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory”, the amygdala plays the role not just in emotional stimuli but also referential processing—speculating its role on hyperthymesia’s autobiographical memory.
Simply put, hyperthymesia removes our ability to remember and forget events – including our worst nightmares.
Our brain tends to “forget” things because our brains wash out “unnecessary” memories to “make space” for new information. It allows us to avoid the headache in remembering an embarrassing moment in our life – those with hyperthymesia, however, do not easily afford such. If they do not forget things easily, the emotions they have associated with these possibly remain as well.
The prospect sounds fine on good memories: childhood memories, memories with your dog, or those of your best vacation. Who wouldn’t want to remember those clearly, or at least remember where they last put their cellphones behind? But even being selective, it allows you to remember even the bad memories.
Will you want to remember an incident that scarred your mind forever: your worst high school memory, your loved ones or your pet dying, or witnessing a murder? For normal people, it is given to be able to move on after some time; but for a hyperthymesiac to dissociate their bad memories would be beyond difficult with their brain continuing to feed on these memories.
A patient named “Veiseh” said in his interview in an article from BBC, “You feel same emotions – it is just as raw, just as fresh… You can’t turn off that stream of memories, no matter how hard you try… It is like having these open wounds – they are just a part of you.” Jill Price, the first hyperthymesiac, stated according to Affinity Magazine that she became “a prisoner to her memory”; she struggled through many episodes of her life by the accumulating number of memories.
Can you imagine being torn between having a blissful stream of memories and having tormenting flashbacks of nightmares? I would pass from the headaches it would induce.
It is also said that the condition can increase sensibility but with increased headaches.
It is said that these people are also having fantasy proneness and absorption, meaning they can imagine, daydream, and be immersed in an activity, alongside with their sensations and experiences; but it isn’t a good thing because they tend to be overly sensitive. However, there are times when remembering events give them a headache. The brain is also an organ, so it does need rest. Hyperthymesiacs experience headaches due to the brain being overworked in holding a lot of memories. Analogically, an amnesiac tends to suffer from head pain when they remember a big part of their life – the same goes with hyperthymesiacs.
It is difficult to live with such memory because you tend to remember every memory of one’s lifetime all by yourself and everyone can get skeptical towards you. You can live with a bunch of memory variety, but people can also live with skeptical attitude towards you, which is common to all of those people who suffered with similar cases of exceptional memory conditions, which is a social headache for everyone.
The condition is also neither genetic nor viral.
Only 60 people have cases of hyperthymesia, counting cases like it. Some were inborn while some suddenly exhibited the condition in their adolescence. According to an article in USA Today, researchers found out that Jill Price has enlarged brain temporal lobes, giving a starting assertion of the super memory’s origin. Despite the findings, researchers are still investigating what caused the condition or where it originated but find it difficult as they are dealing with the brain: most reported cases have normal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brains, similar to what would be seen in a normal brain. The difficulty to trace the roots of this condition is why they are prone to discrimination.
We have, at some point, dreamed of having higher intellect. It is not selfish to desire on improving our memory – easily remembering the mundane can help immensely in our daily lives. Given, it is not easy for one to have. Our brain has also its limits too; it is also an organ that needs its rest.
There is a lot to remember and to forget recently, both good and bad memories, and it is normal. To have a normal brain and life is something to be thankful for because there is something that some people do not have: the ability to forget. To have difficulty forgetting is to have difficulties moving on and forward. People with hyperthymesia are not living the dream that the Korean drama series I have watched posited: they suffer every day with the blessing of remembering and the curse of being unable to forget.
It is not selfish to desire for impressive memory, but it is not desirable to have an above average memory in exchange for a damaged sanity. There are other achievable means to broaden mental capacity: try crosswords, math problems, riddles, or sudoku; or focusing on art, language, and music. Our brains, after all, are made differently.
As much as I’d like to, I need a refresh on my leftover reviewers and papers for my incoming online classes this year. I cannot afford a memory gap for my upcoming subjects.