Remembering What Never Happened

Meera Lee ,

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?


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