I’m rather envious of people who can vividly recall the precise scents and flavors of magnificent meals they once had years ago, or know what their loved ones were wearing on their first date (I have no idea what my husband was wearing when he left the house this morning). It’s impossible, I think, not to be fascinated by photographic memories such as those described by Argentine essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges in his story Funes the Memorious, about a man who “remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once…”
We’ve known for some decades that human memory is extremely fallible; remembered facts can alter over time without our being aware of the changes, and it’s possible for us to be manipulated into developing crisp, detailed false memories of events we never experienced. But is this still true of people with hyperthymesia, also known as “highly superior autobiographical memory” (HSAM)? Those with this extraordinarily rare ability are like real-life Funes, capable of richly reconstructing specific, detailed episodes from every single day of their lives, going back to about the age of 6 or 8. Was it kung pao chicken or a mushroom omelet they’d had after playing tennis with Tanya on that windy autumn Saturday in 1982?
According to some findings, hyperthymesiacs can answer questions like this with approximately 97% accuracy, although tests of HSAM usually involve asking subjects about significant dates or events in history—so that their memories can be matched against verifiable facts. For example, when the University of California, Irvine researchers who conducted a new study of HSAMs asked one participant what happened on October 19, 1987, “she immediately responded with, “It was a Monday. That was the day of the big stock market crash and the cellist Jacqueline du Pré died that day.”
The UC Irvine study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2013, tackled the issue of HSAMs and memory distortions. Ph.D. student in psychology Lawrence Patihis led the study comparing 20 HSAM individuals with 38 controls. Although it seemed plausible that the HSAM group might be immune to memory distortions, Pathis and co. found just the opposite. Over a two-week period, the team carried out a series of exercises designed to test participants’ susceptibility to forming false memories. In each case, fictions seemed to show up just as often in HSAMs’ minds as in controls.
For example, when presented with a word list that included “thread,” “pin,” and “knitting,” both groups were likely to later “remember” also having seen the word “needle”—which was never actually shown. And in the most striking test, a statistically similar proportion in each group (20% of HSAM participants and 29% of controls) claimed to remember having watched film footage of the September 11th crash of United flight 93 in Pennsylvania. There is, of course, no such footage.
In Borges’s story, Funes is tormented by his encyclopedic memory because it traps him in an endless catalog of details. He can never grasp the connections between them. Fortunately, it seems that evolution has protected even the most talented HSAMs from this fate. Think of the way both HSAM participants and controls thought they’d remembered “knitting” after having seen “thread,” “pin,” and “needle.” Why did this happen?
Likely because human memory’s fallibility is intertwined with its tremendous creativity and flexibility. A remembered fact might bleed into a remembered fiction—but what if the false memory can help us just as much as the true one? Psychologist Mark Howe, musing on the positive consequences of false memories, has written:
"... the person who misremembers seeing a predator while foraging for food might be more cautious upon their return to that same patch to gather more food than the person who accurately remembers that only signs (e.g., feces, scent) of the predator had been present on an earlier visit…”
From the Being Human perspective, it's interesting to realize that even our most detailed and meaningful memories may be partially false or fictional. The brain probably did not evolve to present reality to consciousness, but rather to present a skewed take on the world that was more useful for survival—the source of many of our cognitive biases. For much more about the Patihis study, read this fantastic Atlantic Magazine article that takes us behind the scenes of the research.