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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Hyperthymesia: The Curse of Remembering Everything

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The rare ability to “remember not everything” has its fascinating and terrifying features

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve wished we had a perfect memory—whether it’s remembering where we put something that’s already been lost, or taking a test we’ve studied hard for, or being clear in an argument about it , which someone said. But a rare group of people actually possess this ability.

Hyperthymesia is an ability that allows people to remember almost any event in their lives with tremendous accuracy. But while it is easy to think of the advantages of this type of memory, there are also many disadvantages and complex issues associated with it.

Although it is uncommon (there are only about 62 recorded cases), in recent years the world has paid more attention to people with this ability, and now we have more information about this apparent superpower.

•         What is it?

Hyperthymesia is also known as highly superior autobiographical memory (SAPAM). People with hyperthymesia can accurately and easily recall details of events that happened in their lives, from what they ate to what the weather was like on a given day. These details can include exact dates and seemingly mundane information, but the catch is that the ability is limited to autobiographical memory, meaning that people can only remember information about themselves and their own experiences.

• Short-term vs. long-term memory

People with hyperthymesia probably process short-term memories in a similar way to most others, but a 2016 study suggests that these people have better long-term memory, Medical News Today reports. Hyperthymesia is different from just having a good memory, even when it comes to those who win memory contests. This is because people with highly superior autobiographical memory do not use mnemonic devices or other techniques to remember information. Rather, people’s memory is encoded involuntarily and retrieved automatically, according to a report in the Medical Society of Wisconsin.

• Hypermesia and OCD

Some researchers note that individuals with hypermesia share some characteristics with people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), such as demonstrating obsessive tendencies. There is no definitive link between the two, but some studies have found that people with both conditions also tend to have certain structural differences in certain areas of the brain. A key part of the experience of highly superior autobiographical memory is that people are unable to forget their life experiences. Although further research is needed to make definitive statements about the long-term effects, we can probably all relate to how difficult it is to not be able to forgive and forget or let go of your worst memories.

• What causes it?

Because there are relatively few cases of hyperthymesia, there is not enough research to determine the causes. But theories suggest that the cause could be biological, genetic or psychological.

After scanning the brains of people with hyperthymesia, a study shows that there may be links to hyperactivity in certain parts of the brain, such as the amygdala. Another study suggests that people with this ability have increased activity in different parts of the brain, such as the superior and inferior parietal lobes.

Craig Stark of the University of California, Irvine, found an additional connection between the frontal lobes, which are involved in analytical thought, and the hippocampus, which is an area considered the “printing press” of our memory, reports the BBC. But that may be the result of the skill strengthening the neural networks, as opposed to the cause. “It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg,” says Stark.

Some researchers believe that hyperthymesia may have psychological causes due to certain behaviors that cause people to obsessively think about their past experiences – as we mentioned with the alleged link to OCD.

• No formal diagnosis

Because hyperthymesia is a rare ability, there is currently no official way to diagnose it. Because hyperactivity in certain parts of the brain is a suspected feature of the ability, doctors try to assess the condition using a scanner while the patient undergoes a memory test.

People with hyperthymesia have a strange difference between long-term and short-term memory. “Sometimes I don’t remember what happened five minutes ago, but I remember a detail from January 22, 2008,” explains a patient who wishes to remain anonymous. The desire for anonymity also highlights the negative aspect of people with hyperthymesia in the modern world…

Because the ability is so fascinating and rare, and seems like a superpower to the general public, people with hyperthymesia are often thought of as weirdos, perhaps stopping them from coming out to people and contributing to modern research.

• Ability is error prone

In 2013, a team of scientists found that people with this ability suffer from “false memories.” Their personal biases can interfere with their memory of world events and they may remember things that never happened for example.

It’s a good thing to remember, in case you ever get into an argument with someone who has hyperthymesia: there is no such thing as a “perfect” memory.Scientists suspect that it’s not about the way people with hyperthymesia register or write the information in their minds, but rather how they preserve it.

Experts identify two behavioral traits that may contribute to the highly superior autobiographical memory. They profiled about 20 people with this ability and found that they scored particularly high on “fantasy proneness” and “absorption.” The former can be considered a tendency to daydream, and the latter a tendency to allow one’s mind to immerse itself in an activity or experience and all its sensations. Absorption helps establish a solid foundation for a memory first, and a tendency to fantasize means they revisit those memories repeatedly, strengthening them with each repetition.

• “I remember it like it was yesterday”

We all have certain memories of moments in which we were completely absorbed and which we replay over and over again afterwards – from the perfect wedding to our most horrific experience. This is what researchers suspect happens to hyperthymesic subjects, even though they are thought to do it every day and without much conscious effort.

The inability to let go of vivid memories of the past makes it difficult to overcome pain and regret. A patient with hyperthymesia shares this about these moments: “You experience the same emotions—they’re just as raw, just as fresh… You can’t turn off that flood of memories, no matter how hard you try. It’s like having open wounds – they’re just a part of you.”

Source: Stars Insider

Photo by David Cassolato:

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