Memories that last a lifetime
James L. McGaugh
McGaugh, a memory researcher at the University of California Irvine, is studying a small number of people who have incredible recall for the details of their lives.
Q. You’ve now found about 20 people who have this amazing memory called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM. What can they do that the rest of us can’t?
A. [Their] memory of any day is like your and my memory of yesterday. It has about that level of detail: what happened, what were the news events, what did I do, whom did I talk with. We can only do it for yesterday and maybe the day before; [they] can do it for any day of [their] life.
Q. What exactly are you looking for in studying these people?
A. The quest is to understand the nature of this memory. And to understand its neurobiological basis. What is this memory really like, how does it differ from different kinds of memory and what is it about these individuals that enables them to express these memories?
Q. Is this ability to remember something we all have, and people with this condition are just better at retrieving their memories?
A. We don’t know that. We’d like to find that out, because that would be a new chapter in the science of memory. The idea that we stored everything like that and had inadequate access would be one hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that they have better storage devices so they’re much more able to store and categorize this information, which makes it readily available to them.
Q. Do they forget nothing?
A. They don’t remember everything, any more than you and I don’t remember everything that happened to us yesterday. But we certainly remember the main things that happened and that’s what they remember with high accuracy and enormous speed of recollection.
Q. Their memories don’t fade with time? No losing keys as they get older?
A. Their memories seem to last. None of them worries about forgetting. If anything, they worry about remembering, because not every experience they’ve had in their lives has been a pleasant one.
Q. That can’t be fun, remembering all the bad things that ever happened in life as if they were yesterday.
A. Some of them go out of their way to make sure that each day something pleasant happens so that when they remember the day, they’ll remember it as a pleasant day. The fact that they have these extensive memories does not mean they are overburdened with anxiety.
Q. Are they born with this ability or do they develop it?
A. We have evidence that there are young children who have this ability. These people just appear to have it - not that they’ve worked on it - they have it.
Q. Do they have other characteristics in common besides incredible memories?
A. Most of them have some degree of compulsiveness, obsessiveness, which is a little bit beyond average. We think that may be an important clue.
Q. There’s a new TV show this season, “Unforgettable,’’ on CBS, whose main character has this kind of superior memory. Why do you think we’re so fascinated with these memory skills?
A. These people are like us in many respects and then unlike us in terms of the tenacity of these memories, so we can relate to it but in a very puzzled way. How on earth can this be done?
Q. Do you have this yourself?
A. I can remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast on June 13, 1973, for crying out loud. I have a good memory or I wouldn’t be in the field I’m in. But my memory is not extraordinary, it’s just good.