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Alone with My Memory
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all.... Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
-- Luis Buñuel, Memoirs
Why is it that solitary confinement, without labor, is regarded as the severest form of imprisonment? It is because the lonely victim can find nothing to do but to remember. And this incessant remembering has often proved more than the mind could bear.
-- Reverend D. B. Coe, The Memory of the Lost
Time has one fundamental principle: it moves forward. We go from birth to death, from first to last.We are young before we grow old, stimulus always precedes response, and there is no return to yesterday. The sole exception is memory. For me, because of the way my memory works, not only do I often return to yesterday, I can never escape it. I live with a constant, unstoppable parade of the yesterdays of my life flashing furiously through my mind.
Give me a date, and I will travel right to some particular moment of that day and tell you what I was doing, as well as what day of the week it was and any major event that happened that day, as long as I heard about it then, in addition to certain events that pop into my mind that happened around the same time. November 14,1981, a Saturday: My dad's forty-fifth birthday. That night a school group I was joining, the Rasonians, was initiating new members and taking us out in Westwood. July 18,1984, a Wednesday: A quiet summer day. I picked up the book Helter Skelter and read it for the second time. In ten days, Saturday, July 28, Los Angeles would be hosting the Summer Olympics. February 14,1998, a Saturday: I was working as a researcher on a television special and went into work to pick clips, a job I loved because I'm a TV fanatic.
My recall also works the other way: if you ask me about an event, again from 1980 onward, as long as I heard about it, I can give you the date and day of the week it happened, and related information. The end of the FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound: Monday, April 19, 1993. It began on Sunday, February 28, 1993, two days after the World Trade Center bombing on Friday, February 26, 1993. The final episode of MASH airs: Monday, February 28, 1983. It was raining that day and the next day when I was driving my car, the windshield wipers stopped working. The nuclear reactor in Chernobyl melts down: Saturday, April 26, 1986. I was visiting friends in Phoenix. The day the Chinese army brutally suppressed protests in Tiananmen Square: Sunday, June 4, 1989. My aunt Pauline had just passed away, so we were taking my grandmother, her sister, to lunch at Eddie Saul's Deli to break the news to her.
This ability to automatically recall not only dates but also days of the week for events, and then to flip that and recall events for dates,was the feature of my memory that initially startled Dr. McGaugh, because it was unique in the annals of memory research.
That first day I met him -- Saturday, June 24, 2000 -- automatic recall was the kind of test that he gave me. I was excited driving down from Los Angeles to meet him at the research complex at UCI. Though I was desperately hoping that Dr. McGaugh would be able to tell me why my memory works the way it does, I was also a bit unnerved about what I might learn. Who knew what odd brain condition I might have? I had also kept so much to myself for so long about how insistent my memories were, and how they ruled my life, that the concept of disclosing to a complete stranger the weird phenomenon that was raging in my mind was disconcerting. I felt that I'd be exposing my innermost self -- a self that I had not even truly revealed to my family and friends because I hadn't known how to make them understand. But I just had to know, finally, what was going on in my head, and my excitement about Dr. McGaugh having agreed to meet with me far outweighed my trepidation.
As I walked up to the research building, there he was, waiting outside for me, and from the moment he greeted me, he put me at ease. First, he gave me a simple test, which was the beginning of a process of discovery that has changed my life in so many ways.
We went up to his lab, and he had a big reference book lying on the table we sat down at -- The 20th Century Day by Day. He pulled two lists out of the book that he had prepared from it. One was of historically important events occurring during the past thirty years -- roughly the period of my strong memory -- and the other was a list of dates. He started with the list of dates and asked me to tell him what event had happened on each.
The first date on the list was November 5, 1979, and I immediately told him it was a Monday but that I didn't know what happened on that day. On the day before, though, on November 4 of that year, I said, the Iranian students had invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken the hostages whom they held for 444 days. He shook his head and said, no, that happened on the fifth. I told him I was sure it had happened on November 4, and because I was so adamant, he decided to check another source.
When it turned out that I was right and the book was wrong, I could see that Dr. McGaugh was stunned. I was right about all of the other dates on the list too. Then he quizzed me about the second list, which was of events, asking me to give him the date they happened. I got every one of those right too, and as Dr. McGaugh explained to me, one of the things that surprised him the most was how automatic my answers were. He was intrigued that I was clearly not actively trying to recall the answers; they were just there for immediate access.The complete lists, with the answers I gave, as they were reproduced in the paper Dr. McGaugh wrote about me years later, were as follows. Note that in the scientific paper, the scientists referred to me as AJ, in the tradition of preserving the anonymity of subjects of research:
ANSWERS (EVENTS) AJ GAVE TO DATES
8/16/77 Tuesday, Elvis died
6/6/78 Tuesday, Proposition 13 passed in CA
5/25/79 Friday, Plane crash, Chicago
11/4/79 Sunday, Iranian invasion of US Embassy
5/18/80 Sunday, Mt. St Helens erupted
10/23/83 Wednesday, Bombing in Beirut, killed 300
1/17/94 Monday, Northridge Earthquake
12/21/88 Wednesday, Lockerby [Lockerbie] Plane Crash
5/3/91 Friday, Last Episode of Dallas
5/4/01 Friday, Robert Blake's Wife Killed
ANSWERS (DATES) AJ GAVE TO EVENTS
San Diego Plane Crash Monday, September 25, 1978
Who Shot JR? Friday, November 21, 1980
Gulf War Wednesday, January 16, 1991
Rodney King Beating Sunday, March 3, 1991
OJ Simpson Verdict Tuesday, October 3, 1995
Atlanta Bombing Friday, July 26, 1996
Death of Princess Diana Saturday/Sunday, August 30-31, 1997 (depending on France or US)
Concorde Crash Tuesday, July 25, 2000
G. W. Bush Tuesday, November 7, 2000
W. Clinton Tuesday, Nov 3, 1992 and Tuesday, November 5, 1996
When I explained to him that I could also report my recollection of what I was doing personally on those dates, he was intrigued and asked me to write those recollections down. I did so in about fifteen minutes. Some of the events of those days I'd rather not refer to, and in the paper and here as well, we just indicated that they were personal:
Monday, September 25, 1978: It was my grandmother's birthday and I had just started the 8th grade. The plane crash was a PSA flight over San Diego. A member of our Temple was on that flight.
Friday, November 21, 1980: I was in the 10th grade and I went to the Homecoming football game at my high school and then I went to Karen's house to watch Dallas. That was also the day that the MGM Grand Hotel went up in flames in Las Vegas.
Wednesday, January 16, 1991: I was watching Casper [Caspar] Weinberger on CNN and they broke in with the news that we were at war. I looked out the window and wondered how people could go on with life as usual when we were at war. I felt the same way on Tuesday 1/28/1986 when the Challenger exploded.
Sunday, March 3, 1991: Personal
Tuesday, October 3, 1995: Sitting in my den watching and waiting Friday, July 26, 1996: I was having dinner at the Daily Grill with my friend Andi and I saw a lot of people standing around the television in the bar area so I went over there to see what was going on. I could not believe it.
Sunday, August 30, 1997: My friend Robin and I went shopping at Macy's and then went to Hamburger Hamlet for dinner. After getting home, at 10 p.m., I put on The Practice on ABC and found out the princess had died.
Tuesday, July 25, 2000: I was working and read about the crash on the Internet.
Tuesday, November 7, 2000: Personal
Tuesday, Nov 3, 1992: My dad and I were so happy to vote for Clinton that I was dancing around the parking lot. We came home and my mom had bagels and lox for us to celebrate. That night I went over to my friend Stacy's house to watch his acceptance speech.
Tuesday, November 5, 1996: The family went to The Grill in Beverly Hills for dinner to celebrate [my brother] Michael's birthday which was the next day.
As you can see, the recollections I get for any given date tend to be snippets at first. When I'm given a date, I have an immediate recall of some particular thing, or a few things, that happened that day. My mind takes me right to those moments, and I in effect am "in" them again; I also feel the emotion of whatever moment has popped up. If I start to focus on recalling more, I'll "see" more and more of the day.
The fact that my memory is not only for dates and for cultural or news events but for those events combined with the events of my own life is the reason that Dr. McGaugh identified it as distinctively autobiographical in nature. Researchers distinguish among many types of memory, for example, short-term, long-term, semantic, episodic, and working memory. There are many more. Each has its own particular functioning, and scientists are still working out how the various types of memory are created and stored in the brain and how they combine with one another in day-to-day life. For example, they have theories about how short-term memories are transformed into long-term ones, but no definitive answer. Autobiographical memory is a combination of long-term memory for the specific events in our lives, such as, for me, going to Disneyland with a good friend of mine, and knowledge about the facts of our lives, such as that we are married or that we have two children. Most people's autobiographical memory is highly selective, emphasizing particularly important or emotionally intense events, such as one's wedding day or a horrible car accident.
What was so striking to Dr. McGaugh about that first test he did of my memory is that in the study of what is called superior memory, my type of autobiographical recall was unheard of. That's why the scientists coined a new term for it: hyperthymestic syndrome, from the Greek words thymesis, which means remembering, and hyper, meaning extreme or excessive. One of my hopes is that people who have been living with the syndrome will hear word of it, as I know all too well how confusing and difficult it is to cope with and what a comfort it has been to me to understand the condition better -- even just to know that I have a specific condition.
What is so different about my sort of recall is that most cases of superior memory involve the ability to remember other types of information, such as strings of numbers like the digits of pi or long lists of unrelated words. My memory doesn't work that way at all, and I did not perform especially well on tests that measure that sort of memorization ability. The previously documented cases of superior memory break down into two main types: people who use mnemonic devices such as imagery or rhyming to memorize vast amounts of data and savants who are naturally able to memorize incredible volumes of information, like the entire New York City phone book or a hundred years of baseball statistics. I can't even imagine doing that.
The history of methods for memorizing is fascinating, stretching all the way back to ancient times. One technique, called the method of loci, is attributed to the Greek poet Simonedes of Kos in 447 b.c. It consists of mentally walking down a familiar path and attaching to-be-remembered facts to places along the path. When you want to recall them, you "walk" along the path in your mind, and they are much more easily retrieved. I've never used mnemonic tricks like this or rehearsed the events of my life in order to remember them. Nor do I use any kind of memory aids like rhyming or imaging items in my head. I'm as awed by the feats of that sort of memorizing as anyone else is.
One of the most famous cases of superior memory is of a man referred to in the scientific literature as S, who was studied by Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. Luria's attention was brought to S, whose name was later revealed to be Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevskii, by the editor of the newspaper where S worked.The editor had noted that after the morning meeting he held with the reporters, S was able to recall lengthy instructions he'd been given without having taken any notes. Luria tested S at length and concluded that his memory was phenomenally strong, and that although he used some mnemonic devices, his memory was not dependent on them. More recent scrutiny of Luria's work on S suggests that mnemonics might have been more integral to S's ability. Regardless of whether they were necessary for his remembering, he certainly was good at using them, as he later went on to become a professional mnemonist, performing memory feats for entertainment.
Interestingly, as is often the case with unusual types of memory, S also demonstrated other oddities in his mental abilities. He had a condition known as synesthesia, in which when one of the senses is aroused, it produces an associated sensation in another of the senses. When the person hears a certain sound, he might also see a color associated with it, or a taste might trigger an associated sound. S also had trouble with language: he couldn't understand that two different words could be used to refer to the same thing and could not comprehend abstract concepts. In addition, he had limitations with some types of visual recognition; when shown two pictures of the same person's face, he had trouble understanding that they were of the same face if the expressions were different. As is so often the case in the study of people with unusual memory abilities, these other quirks in S's mental functioning offered rich clues for investigation of the ways in which memory is so intricately intertwined with other thought processes in our brains. To me, the most interesting aspect of his story is that he had no superior memory for his own life events. The details about his own life were something of a blur.
There was also no evidence of superior autobiographical memory in another of the famous cases of superior memory, that of VP, a man who could play up to sixty games of correspondence chess without notes. By the age of five, he had memorized the street map of Riga, in Latvia, his home town of 500,000 people.
VP was able to memorize almost all of "The War of the Ghosts," a strange Native American folk tale that pioneering British psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett used to test people's memories because it is so quirky and hard to recall. He recited the story to those he was testing and then would ask them to recall it verbally to him. Most people leave out key details and change the story in significant ways. Here it is, in case you want to read it and test yourself about how much you can remember (though I warn you, it's odd):
One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard warcries, and they thought: "Maybe this is a war-party." They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:
"What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people."
One of the young men said, "I have no arrows."
"Arrows are in the canoe," they said.
"I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you," he said, turning to the other,"may go with them."
So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.
And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama.The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, "Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit."Now he thought: "Oh, they are ghosts." He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.
So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: "Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick."
He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.
He was dead.
VP was able to recall the story with remarkable precision six weeks after listening to only two readings of it. A year later, he was able to recall the tale just as accurately as he had the year before.
When I was asked to read the story and recall it, I just said, "No way," because I knew from experience that I wasn't going to be able to remember it. That's not the way my memory works. I did finally agree to read it, and recalled only seven out of forty-nine nouns and eight out of sixty-eight verbs. By contrast, VP's score was thirty-three out of forty-nine nouns and forty out of sixty-eight verbs, and his score was almost as high six weeks later.
Another test I was given in order to compare my memory to cases like that of S and VP was about number recall. I was asked to look at a 4 X 13 matrix of numbers, such as this below, and recall as much of it as I could right thereafter:
6 6 8 0
5 4 3 2
1 6 8 4
7 9 3 5
4 2 3 7
3 8 9 1
1 0 0 2
3 4 6 1
2 7 6 8
1 9 2 6
2 9 6 7
5 5 2 0
x 0 1 x
S was able to call off all fifty-two numbers in succession in 40 seconds after studying the matrix for only three minutes. I just laughed when they asked me to do this test. Were they kidding? I studied the matrix for 3 minutes 52 seconds and was able to recall only seven of the fifty-two numbers.
In one book about studies of people with unusual memory, out of ten cases described, the majority had an incredible memory only for quite specific kinds of information, which they had memorized. For example, subject A had worked as a telephone operator in Britain and was able to recall nearly all the telephone exchange codes of all the towns in the British Isles. None of the ten cases, however, had more than average ability to recall autobiographical detail from their pasts. Clearly my brain works quite differently from theirs.
As for savants such as Kim Peek, the inspiration for the character in the movie Rain Man, they tend to have particular areas of extraordinary memory, such as the ability to remember long displays of words or digits, but they do not generally have extraordinary autobiographical recall. I am neither autistic nor a savant, and the kind of calculations they do with strings of thousands of words or numbers are as foreign to me as they are to you.
In fact, I'm horrible at memorizing. Many people have commented that school must have been a breeze for me. But my memory was actually more of a hindrance than a help in school. My mind doesn't store information in the way that so much of school requires. I had lots of trouble memorizing history, arithmetic, foreign language, and science facts because I had to be genuinely interested in information of that kind in order to remember it. Memorizing poetry was especially painful, if not impossible. I needed math tutors from second grade on to help me memorize the way to do calculations, and I did horribly in geometry because I could never remember the theorems. Not only is my brain not good at that type of remembering, but over time, the constant rush of personal memories running through my head made it hard to pay attention.The result was my grades were mostly Cs with some Bs and an A here and there. This is also one reason that the fact that I had a superior memory didn't become clear to my parents and teachers as I was growing up.
Though this may sound odd, the fact that my memory is so different wasn't always clear even to me. When I was young, I had a vague sense that I seemed to have a much better memory than lots of other people. I was always correcting my parents about things they claimed I had said, or that they had said to me, which, as you can imagine, didn't go over very well. But my memory wasn't always so strikingly different; it seems to have developed in stages as I grew up, and up to my mid-elementary school years, it wasn't something that preoccupied me.
I first began to appreciate just how detailed my memory was becoming in 1978, at age twelve. I was in seventh grade and studying on May 30 for a science final with my mother.That was a bad year at school, and as I studied, I started to drift off into thinking how much I had loved the year before. Suddenly I was aware that I was able to vividly recall exactly what I was doing the same day the year before. May 30 that year was Memorial Day, and I saw myself on Tees Beach in Santa Monica with my family by lifeguard station 4. I had another such vivid memory a couple of months later, on July 1. I was on the beach at Paradise Cove with my friend Kathy and her family, and she and I were eating vanilla custards. All of a sudden I realized that she and I had done exactly the same thing on the same beach on the same day the year before. I looked at her and said, "Do you realize we did the exact same thing on July 1 last year?" expecting that shock of recognition when she too remembered the day. But she just looked at me and said,"We did?" and I realized she didn't remember it at all.That was when I started to understand that my memory was unusual, and from then on, flashes of recall of that kind just kept happening more and more.
I can clearly identify three phases of my memory's development. For my earliest years, from 1965, when I was born, to 1974, I remember a good deal more than most other people do from that part of their lives. I also have some vivid memories from much younger than the age of most people's first memories. My earliest memory is from when I was eighteen months old and I was in my crib. My uncle's poodle, Frenchie, woke me up, and when I opened my eyes, there he was, his big brown eyes staring at me in curiosity, and I started crying. (Before long, I grew to love Frenchie.)
From 1974 to 1979, ages eight to thirteen, I remember most days but not every day, and I sometimes have to try for a few seconds to recall a day. From February 5, 1980, onward is when I begin to have completely accurate recall.
My memory for dates and days of the week seems to have evolved naturally right along with my recall of events as I grew up. One of the results was that I began to simply "see" in my mind that certain years matched up by date. For example, 1969 and 1986 have exactly the same calendars, meaning that all the dates fell on the same days. January 1 was a Wednesday in both years, and all of the rest of the days were the same through the year.
My memory is constantly making linkages between dates that way. For example, I often do what I call "chaining" through these identical years. From a given date that has popped into my mind -- say, July 4, 2007, which fell on a Wednesday -- I'll find my memory drawn to traveling back to all of the other July 4ths in my life, from the period of my strong recall, that also fell on a Wednesday: in 1990, 1984, and 1979. I do this not only for days in years with identical calendars, though; I like doing it for any given date, chaining quickly back through all the days with the same date and seeing what nugget of memory first pops up for each day.This is soothing for me, bringing some order to the swirl of my memories, and often when I'm blow-drying my hair in the morning, I flip through all the days with the same date as that morning. The other day, December 19, for example, I wrote up a description of my recall as I chained through all of the December 19ths that I can remember, starting in 1980. I'll spare you the complete write-up, as I'm sure a selection will make the point:
DECEMBER 19, 1980 -- FRIDAY
Last day of school (10th grade) before Christmas vacation.
That night babysit for the Reisberg sisters (5 and 7).
DECEMBER 19, 1981 -- SATURDAY
Go shopping with Dean and Harry in Beverly Hills. See Candace in Beverly Hills -- she just made the cheerleading one day earlier and she was so happy!
That night go out with Harry -- I am wearing my gray turtleneck sweater and I break my bracelet on his bed; we go to Swenson's Ice Cream.
DECEMBER 19, 1982 -- SUNDAY
My third day as a box girl at Gelson's supermarket.
That night I went to see Six Weeks with Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore; it was so sad and we were all crying. Liz slipped on wet paper on the floor and slid across the theater lobby.
DECEMBER 19, 1983 -- MONDAY
Home from college for Christmas vacation. My first (and last) day as a flower deliverer at the flower shop across the street from Renee's mom's shop. Get locked in an elevator. Get chased by a squirrel at The Buckley School. Get lost in Sun Valley. Get pulled over on the 405 south for tailgating on my way to Westwood to see Silkwood. I was with Renee, Susie and Tricia.
DECEMBER 19, 1984 -- WEDNESDAY (LEAP YEAR)
Finish first semester at LAVC (community college). Candace over and we watch Charles in Charge. We are really excited because we are going to AZ in the morning.
DECEMBER 19, 1985 -- THURSDAY
Finishing up Fall 85 semester at LAVC. I got my hair cut really short the day before so now I had really high hair and used a lot of Aqua Net Super Hold. Michael [my brother] opened the door while I was getting dressed and I slammed it shut but it swung open into my eye. I was leaving for Florida on my first trip without my parents (Boca to see grandparents and aunt and uncle and Philadelphia to see Cathi and Dan) on Sunday 12/22 and I had a black eye.
DECEMBER 19, 1986 -- FRIDAY Finishing up my time at LAVC.
Went to work at Nordstrom's Rack -- HATED THAT JOB.
Perhaps one reason that I remember days so well is that my brain seems to love to organize time. One of the unusual ways it does so, which intrigued the scientists because again it was so unprecedented, is with visuals that I just "see" in my mind. The first of these is a time line of history, which covers not just my lifetime but goes back to the year 1900. I have no idea why this is the case, nor do the scientists.The way I drew this time line for them is as follows:
When they asked me to describe how I saw the time line on several different occasions, I always drew it exactly the same way, with the same set of years and with all of the lines the same range of lengths. I can't think of any reason that it's this particular set of years I see or why I draw some of the lines longer and some shorter. I also have no idea why 1970 is the pivot point at the top left, where the time line switches from horizontal to vertical.
The scientists remarked how counterintuitive it is that the dates start at the right and proceed to the left, like reading Hebrew, and then down rather than up. But to me that's not counterintuitive at all; it's simply the way I see them. They don't know what the significance of this time line is in the way my memory works or why I see history in this fashion.As far as I'm concerned, I can't imagine not seeing the time line in my mind.
That isn't the only visual that took shape in my mind as I grew up. I see single years as circles, as in the diagram below. June is always at the bottom and December always at the top, and the months progress counterclockwise.
Because my memory became so complete, I began to act as the historian in my family and among my friends, regularly reminding people of the dates of events in their lives and "refereeing" disputes about when something happened. "No, it wasn't in July of 1998 that you two went to Italy, that was August of 1996." "You're both wrong.The date you had that huge fight was Saturday, November 16, 2002, and you patched it up on December 11." "Grandma didn't come to visit us in January that year; she came on March 14." I like dating events that way and don't mind at all when people ask me to do so. That's probably the most clarifying way in which people start to understand just how different my memory is. I even used to joke that I should open a "Stump the Human Calendar" booth on Venice Beach, near where I grew up in Los Angeles.
The truth is, though, that as much as I like that my memory is so complete, it's been terribly difficult to live with. My lack of talent for memorizing is only one of the many features of my memory that have influenced my life in ways that have been seriously challenging, often excruciating. One of the most troubling features of my memory is that it is so automatic and can spin wildly out of control.Though I can direct my memory back to particular events I want to remember -- and when asked to, I can recall memories in a systematic way, such as when I'm given a date or an event -- when my memory is left to its own devices, it roams through the course of my life at will. Memories are popping into my head randomly all the time, as though there is a screen in my head playing scenes from movies of years of my life that have been spliced into one another, hopping around from day to day, year to year, the good, the bad, the joyful, and the devastating, without my conscious control.
Perhaps they're not actually random. They do seem to be sparked by what scientists of memory call retrieval cues, such as a date being mentioned, a song on the radio, or a name coming up. The other day, for example, the song "Jessie's Girl" came on the radio, and instantly my memory went to the first day I heard the song, March 7, 1981. I had just gotten my driver's permit and I was driving my friend Ronni home after she spent the night at my house. Often it's a smell that will take me back. For example, when I walked into the house the other night, the first thing I smelled was a baked potato in the oven, and it brought me right back to when I was two years old, sitting in the living room in our apartment in New York City and watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. For forty years that is exactly the moment that the smell of a baked potato always takes me back to. It's not the same if a potato is microwaved; the memory isn't triggered. It has to be baked in the oven.
Sometimes I'm aware of what the cue was, as in those cases, but many times I'm not. My recall is so automatic that I'm not truly conscious most times about why I have started remembering something.
According to one of the leading theories, normal human memory makes use of retrieval cues in this way too, probably because those words or sounds or smells were stored in the long-term memory at the same time the memory was. The more specific the cue is, the more effectively it tends to call up a memory. For example, if you went on a great trip to Yosemite Park, you might not find yourself remembering that trip if a friend just said the word park, but if she said Yosemite, the chances that your mind would flash onto that trip increase. I'm sure you can remember instances of a memory popping into your head that way when you heard a song or a place name. They're called involuntary memories, and one study showed that most people have about three to five of them a day. Ironically the memory of having these memories fades quickly for most people, so you may be able to recount only a couple of particular instances.
One of the things that seems to be different about my memory is that many things act powerfully and automatically as retrieval cues for me, filling my head with involuntary memories almost all the time. When I'm watching TV, I may hear a product name that will set off a rush of memories; or driving to work, I may notice a place name on a road sign, and my mind will take off. I have many, many more than three to five memories a day; they pop into my mind continually. Another key difference in my involuntary memories seems to be that normally, most such memories are of positive experiences, but mine are all over the map, from great times to horrible ones.
A key question about my memory, in fact, is whether I remember so much because so many of my long-term memories get stored with such a richness of cues. It may be that we all encode into our long-term memories as much information about our lives as I do, but that my mind has a much greater ability to pull those memories out of storage.The problem with how many cues set my memory off is that the process is constant, and my mind doesn't just flash on to those memories and then quickly get back to the present moment.
In many ways, my memory has been both a blessing and a curse. When I'm feeling down, I often revisit favorite memories,which I call "traveling," going back especially to the happiest years of my life as a young child in New York City and suburban New Jersey. I wouldn't give my memories of those years up for anything in the world; they give me great comfort during my most difficult times. But my memory has also caused me quite a bit of pain through the years.Remembering so many of the moments of my life means I recall not only the joyful, fun times: the times of wonderful family closeness and friendship and sharing, and the esteem-building moments of achievement. I also constantly recall the fights and the insults, the excruciating embarrassments, the moments of heated anger and devastating disappointment.
One of the features of my memories that is most difficult to cope with is that the emotion of them isn't dialed down; my memories are apparently exceptionally emotional and sensually vivid. Some fascinating research has been done on the question of how much emotion is recalled in normal human remembering. Most people -- 82 percent according to one study -- report that they vividly recall emotions along with their memories. But research has shown that that is probably true for only a small set of particularly momentous memories in their lives, which are called personal event memories, and are experienced as being relived when they are remembered.
Some studies have even indicated that for many memories that people report as being highly emotional, the degree of emotion they experience while remembering them is in fact quite faint. For example, when people were asked to remember while their brains were being scanned in real time, no activity in the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, was detected. An interesting exercise to try in order to figure out what is true of your own emotional recall, suggested to me by one researcher who has worked on this question, is to quickly describe twenty highly emotional memories. Apparently in the studies she has done, this exercise is quite difficult for most people after the first few items. But I could list hundreds of them without stopping to think.
When I remember, the effect for all of my memories is like that described for personal event memories. It's not as though I'm looking back on the events with the distance of time and of adult perspective; it's as though I'm actually living through them again. Though it's difficult to describe this, when I remember, I see and feel with the fullness of watching a scene in a movie, and that can be emotionally overwhelming. For me, the emotion that comes along with every memory is every bit as potent as it was the day I first had it.
I feel the same fear, no matter how irrational that fear might have been.When we moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1974,my parents were young and had a lot of friends and they would go out every weekend. Depending on what night of the weekend it was, we had either our housekeeper or a babysitter stay with my brother and me. The Friday night TV lineup on NBC that fall was The Rockford Files at 9 p.m. and Police Woman at 10 p.m. I always hoped my parents would be home when The Rockford Files ended at 10:00, even though I knew it would be hours before they would actually get back. As the closing credits ran and the theme song played, I would begin feeling anxious. I would have trouble getting to sleep afterward and would wake up in the middle of the night, usually around 2 a.m. If I saw that my parents' car was not in the carport, I would start to feel really sick inside. I would go and get their pictures and lie in bed holding them, so when they came home they always found me sleeping with a bunch of pictures clenched tightly. Until now they never knew the reason for finding me like that. I loved the show but, even now that I'm forty-two years old, The Rockford Files theme song gives me a knot in my stomach every time I hear it, bringing me right back to being eight years old.
At any given moment, anything at all that someone said to me, or some hurtful or ridiculous thing that I said to someone that I desperately wish I could take back, may pop into my mind and yank me back to that difficult day and exactly how I was feeling about myself. Often it's excruciating to relive the past this way. I know that people generally forget -- eventually, anyway -- most of the details of arguments they've had, or of hurtful things friends and family have said or done to them, and that they've said and done to others. Those memories might be called to mind if they have a similar experience that brings them forth, but generally, they are not floating constantly in and out of people's consciousness. Unfortunately, I regularly remember a vast storehouse of them, and vividly, from the time I was fourteen.
The emotional intensity of my memories, combined with the random nature in which they're always flashing through my mind, has, on and off through the course of my life, nearly driven me mad. As I grew older and more and more memories accumulated in my mind, my memory became not only a horrible distraction in trying to live my life today, but also the cause of my terrible struggle to come to terms with my feelings about my past. The more memories were stored, the harder and harder it became to cope with the rush of recalled events. So many painful memories kept asserting themselves. The thousands of things my parents said to discipline me, for example, or blurted out when they were having a bad day or when I provoked them have never faded.
Dr. McGaugh told me that first day I met with him that lots of people had contacted him through the years. He had stacks of e-mails from people saying that they had special memory abilities, but almost all had turned out not to truly have the capabilities they'd described. He was convinced that my abilities, though, were real, and I felt joy and relief when he said that he wanted to work with me. I had no idea what to expect about what he would discover, but I felt sure that at last I was going to be able to begin to understand my memory and explain it to those in my life in a way I'd never been able to do.
One of the interesting things Dr. McGaugh has explained to me during the course of our subsequent work together is that science knows a good deal about forms of impaired memory such as amnesia, but it knows very little about forms of superior memory.That was one reason he was so interested in studying my memory further. Not only did my memory appear to be unique, but in the science of memory, there is a long tradition of discoveries arising from the study of people with unusual types of memory.
As far back as 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus wrote in his classic Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology that "our inform tion comes almost exclusively from the observation of extreme and especially striking cases." I was to discover that my memory does in fact shed light on many of the fascinating questions about how our memories work and how they shape our lives. One of the most intriguing of those, and a first order of business in trying to understand the workings of my memory, is why I don't forget. As it turns out, forgetting is a topic of unexpectedly intriguing dimensions. Copyright © 2008 by Jill Price
Posted December 20, 2010
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