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What's it Like Having One of the World's Best Memories?

By Roger Weber

First, some elephants…

For miles and miles, Mirasa trudged on tired knees willing her family of elephants across a barren African desert. Out the gates of a park designed to protect them, Mirasa’s family put their faith in their leader as she willed them into a land that none of them had ever seen, where poachers still roamed and where their tusks were a priceless bounty. Stepping over the bodies of their fallen brethren, the elephants uttered audible mourns, tapping trunks as if to bow their quiet respects, but they did not stop. For days they marched, quietly risking death before unearthing a small watering hole 80 miles from where they’d started. When the rains hadn’t come, Mirasa’s family miraculously survived. For families with younger leaders, a more painful fate: a death rate of over 80% and wrenching discomfort that bore a painful scar on the memories of the youngsters who survived.

The 1993 drought in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park nearly did in a population of elephants already decimated by poaching from the 1980s. But not all elephants. Mirasa had been one of the lucky ones, eternally scarred by the impacts of a similar drought in 1965, and she’d never forgotten. For her, parched lips were all too familiar. Turning the wheels of time like a projector within her memory, Mirasa acted, and with computational precision she retraced the steps she’d once made as a baby, then incidentally, now as an elder passing on a generational lesson that her children would be sure to never forget.

Like a GPS, elephants’ memories offer a precision few humans can recognize. Able to remember the patterns of each daily journey, the details of each prior location, every individual of every species they ever encounter, elephants have overcome unfathomable odds, forging with strategic intelligence Darwinian success for a species among the most vulnerable in the world. For them, memory is a tool: for assessing threats, for escaping danger, and for maintaining their herds. For them, a brilliant memory is not merely a curiosity, but rather their single greatest tool for evolutionary success. It is perhaps the single-greatest story of self-made triumph in the animal kingdom that an animal so hunted and with so few defenses has the remarkable lifespan of 60 years in the most unforgiving planes on the planet. Hail the remarkable elephant memory.

If elephants were human, we’d diagnose them with a rare condition known as hyperthymesia. Found in just a handful of people around the world, hyperthymesia seems impossible to most: people who from the age of puberty on can remember the mundane daily details of every single day of their entire lives. Every meal, every interaction, every introduction, every grade, every trip to the bathroom.

For many, the potential of hyperthymesia has long been a dream. Within scientology and dianetics, for instance, having “full and perfect recall of every moment” of life was for many years described as the ultimate outcome of being “cleared”, in which, at great expense, the mind is ultimately freed from the influence of engrams, their phraseology for emotions, anxieties, and traumas that cause the mind to be perpetually reactive. According to dianetics, controlling one’s mental energy requires a mind that is not reactive, in which one is in full control. For them, nirvana could only come once perfect memory was achieved, after the bad stuff that prevented it had been cleared out. To them, a perfect memory was a natural state of which everyone is capable. Their illusion that a bit of therapy could create a perfect memory was busted in 1950 when it was proven that Sonya Bianca, the first “clear” they created, actually didn’t have perfect recall of every moment of her life. El Ron Hubbard’s blossoming belief system may have been better served by using somebody with actual hyperthymesia as his first prop.

The reality is that for many hyperthymesia is hardly a blessing. For many who are scarred by their day-to-day memory of past events in their life, hyperthymesia is a curse. For these individuals, the old adage is not true: time, in fact, does not heal all wounds. Instead, memories linger, bright as day, crisp as the fall leaves.

My memory

Since I was young I knew my memory was unusual. If many kids’ brains are like sponges, mine was like the ShamWow. Not only could I remember the long lists of extraneous facts that school teaches about dinosaurs and whales, but about virtually any subject I touched. In 1996 I committed to learning about baseball stadiums, and to this day I remember the capacity of every single stadium in play at that time, as well as its year of opening and what kind of playing surface it had. In 1998 I took to reading about cars and could soon recite the detailed specifications of every single car on the road. To this day I remember how high the speedometer dials ran in each of the major car brands I knew about. Whether it was the heights of buildings or the lengths of bridges, the flood stages of rivers, lists of presidents or baseball’s World Series winners, each was a list I could remember top-to-bottom without even trying.

As I’ve grown older, my ability for memory has transcended the random lists. More powerful than a supercomputer, most people’s minds can remember long lists of information they care about. What’s less common is remembering with such precision and detail the mundane events of daily life for years into one’s past. While characteristic of hyperthymesia are such memories after puberty, my proclivity for memory of such events is both less comprehensive and more lifelong. In an instant I can be taken back to conversations on the playground when I was 8 years old: it’s a mental elixir that washes over me and replays a movie reel word-for-word in my head.

Memories are different in different people, and my proclivity for life memory is characteristically chronological and visual, as if playing a mental movie. While it’s rare for me to remember events based on dates alone, I can easily back into vivid memories if playing the movie from the start of a milestone. While I’d hardly recognize the date August 27, 2002 on its own, the fact that I remember August 10th was a Saturday tells me the 27th was a Tuesday. That school started two and a half weeks out from the day I left camp on the 10th, and that school always starts on a Wednesday, tells me the 27th was the day before, and I remember well spending the morning of that day in pre-start of school prep sessions, where I debated with my friend a college football game that that weekend ended with a score of 45-21. Our argument centered on whether it was a convincing win, and I remember pointing out to him that with five minutes left in the game the score was a more convincing 38-7. That afternoon I bought my first cell phone with my mom. The salesman was a clean-shaven white male, and that day they were out of orange phone covers so I got a red one instead, and the gentleman threw in a free charcoal one for our troubles. While it was a typical August day around noon, that afternoon the skies got murkier and it started to rain as I sat in a chair in my room (As a check on myself I looked up the weather and in fact it did rain from around 1 to 3 pm). I fumbled on my phone through ringtones, ultimately selecting the “Charge” song.

Once at Red Lobster with my girlfriend a couple years months ago I tested that theory (we got the Seaside Shrimp Trio if you’re wondering) by asking her to give me a random date in my life. The date she picked was in 2005, and while I remembered little from the day, I was able to back into the score of a basketball game that I concluded must have happened on that day (it did). A particular team lost 67-60, and it dropped their overall record to 12-7 on the season (they finished 20-12).

Among other things, sports scores are a great orienting mechanism for my memory, as they help me frame the years in bite-size increments – the weeks between football games and the gentle flow of the baseball season. That I remember the score of literally every single game that has occurred since 1995 of one of my favorite sports teams, as well as the details of most of those games, remains to this day one of the strangest facts about me.

The one frustrating blind spot is a period toward the end of college into my early professional life when I spent less time worrying about sports and more time worrying about my social life. For that period I must use other orienting mechanisms, such as that I remember text messages from April 20th, 2013, the last day I hung out with a group of friends I had met at a trivia contest on February 7th of that year. I had prepared macaroni and cheese for dinner the Sunday prior. On August 17th I spent a weekend with my then-girlfriend, and on September 1st I penned an article on my patio the day after a friend spent the night.

My memory is an elixir: a challenging struggle between ready avenues to both escape from my day-to-day life by replaying the mental movies from better days (I’m a great storyteller at parties, for that reason, as long as you have the patience for long drawn our chronological anthologies), or to be mired in the eternally haunting anxieties from bad memories from which I cannot escape. I’ve learned, for instance, that others remember far less about me than I remember about them, though one bad experience with a single individual can make me bristle about that person for the rest of my life.

The upside to the mental movies is that I can happily awash myself in past triumphs and tell stories with amazing detail. It’s literally like a drug. I descend into a state of mental nirvana in which memories flow and details pour like waterfalls. On the flip side, it causes challenges: when I was asked to contemplate my dating history a few years ago, the result was a spreadsheet of 523 names of every girl I’d ever had a crush on, described in columns across nearly 100 variables that described aspects of who they were. It was a little much. For those that don’t enjoy longwinded stories or extensive spreadsheets, my constant need to filter out my memory in real time is a cumbersome and exhausting exercise. I found it highly surprising not long ago when somebody revealed to me that most people do not in fact remember the names of which classmates were in each of their classes in high school.

On the downside I can easily get mired in an unenviable past reality that makes me unable to escape the vivid memories of stupid things from long ago that should be easily forgettable. What for most people are fleeting phases of life development are for me as clear as they ever were, and that can be annoying. If I could whitewash away large portions of my memories, I’d certainly think about doing so, and at times am envious of those who can more easily “move on”.

The other downside of an exhaustive memory is that I constantly have to fight the urge to turn casual conversations about generalities into ones that cite specific history from decades ago. Here’s a typical conversation about sports:

Me: “What do you think of those [insert sports team here] this year??

Other person: “I got 50 bucks on ‘em but ain’t looking good if they can’t figure out what to do with 2 quarterbacks”

Me: “Yeah, but both guys are good

Other person: “Nah man, 2 qb’s is a recipe for disaster”

Me: “It wasn’t for the 1996 team. That year they made the two qb system work really well”

Other person *scratches head*: “Huh. Was that the Joe Jasmine year?”

Me: “No, that was 1998. ’98 was a good team but I think ’96 actually was better. Remember those first three games of the ’96 season and how good the left side of that offensive line was? Well, the first and third games, really, I mean. They had some lapses in game 2 that got them behind 17-7 in the first half but they still ended up winning 70-17.”

Other person: “No. I don’t remember any of that”.

On the plus side, my memory has helped me make up for countless deficiencies. My memory gives me a deep bank of experience from which to draw when it comes to interacting with others: even if we share little in common, I sure have a lot of memory experience to draw upon, and that means I can converse on nearly any subject. Similarly, my memory makes me a solid public speaker: while I have never in my life memorized a speech, I can crisply and confidently remember enormous volumes of information, and with just a little bit of a slick tongue in most any formal setting I can come across as knowledgeable. Musically, memory allowed me to overcome an utter inability to sightread music. I’m an audible trumpet player: if I hear it once, I’ve got it down. In my college marching band I quickly memorized a full repertoire of nearly 100 songs. While I never needed music, my free hands made me a good leader for the trumpet section, responsible for sorting out sheet music for everyone else. And finally, athletically, despite a lack of deep athletic talent, muscle memory has helped me excel in specialized skills: shooting three-pointers in basketball, tossing cornhole bags, and shooting pool.

I’ve only recently come to understand that what I have is as abnormal as it is. What memory percentile do I fall in? The 95th? The 98th? Whatever it is does little to explain why. If there’s an explanation, my friend in the medical field suggests it might be that I am blind, completely blind, in my left eye. In her hypothesis, the void in sensory activity in the vicinity of that eye left a large portion of my brain a sort of vacant strip mall: fully developed, ready for occupancy. That I have a movie screen for memory where the eye should have been is perhaps just a real estate reality that somebody had to move in and create value for the neighborhood. It seems unlikely, but until I hear a better story I’ll take her word for it.

At least it might explain why elephants have notoriously such poor eyesight.

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