Don’t forget this article...

Taken from CaCO3

Remember everything that has happened to you today, in as much detail as possible. Now, try and do the same for the past week. Can you remember what you were doing at this same time one month ago? Or this time last year? 

In 2000, one woman, 34 year-old Jill Price, surprised researcher James McGaugh with an email, explaining that she could recall every day of her life from the age of 12, as well as important events which occurred during that time. He invited her to his lab and, quizzing her on random events which had happened in the last 20 years, found her to be spot on every time, whether it was a plane crash, elections or even celebrity gossip. After realising her genuine ‘superpower’, he began working closely with her and a few others of the same ability, studying their minds to unleash secrets about the human memory. 

Even now, most research into memory involves patients with memory impairment, such as the case of Henry Molaison, who lost both hippocampi regions on either side of his brain during surgery. It had disastrous results; Molaison was able to retain memories from before the surgery, but not those made afterwards. So he remembered his childhood holidays, but his doctors had to reintroduce themselves whenever they entered his room. However, Molaison’s short term memory was still intact, meaning he could remember things for several minutes before forgetting. Cases like these enabled scientists to classify different types of memory. The short term memory lasts about a minute, unless information is reinforced through repetition. The hippocampi, located in the temporal lobes either side of the brain, somehow transform some of these passing memories into long term memory which can be accessed again. 

The long term memories can also be divided into semantic memories for factual concepts (for example, knowing there are 100cm in 1m) and autobiographical memories (everyday events we experience). Jill Price’s semantic and short term memories were average, but her autobiographical memory was astounding. She was found to have ‘highly superior autobiographical memory’ (HSAM) and, in 2007, McGaugh’s team published their studies on Price. Since then, they have discovered 33 more people with the same condition, all of them developing it around the age of 10. Whilst ordinary human memories in general become less and less detailed the longer ago they were made, the information recalled by those with HSAM is the same, whether it was experienced ten minutes ago or ten years ago. Sowhat exactly is going on here? One member of McGaugh’s team, LePort, says ‘it’s important to understand that HSAMers do forget. It’s just that they don’t forget as much as you or me.’ One theory for this ability concerns emotions. It has been proven that experiences with high emotional impact are likely to be remembered more clearly due to processing by the amygdalae, small structures next to the hippocampi. McGaugh believes that HSAMers’ brains operate at a much higher level of emotional arousal than average so excess information is accidentally processed. 

The 11 HSAMers in the study were tested and found to have larger temporal lobes than normal, which makes sense as these are where long term memories are stored. However, it is uncertain whether these developed in order to store the memories, or extra memories were retained due to the enlargement. There were also differences in the fibrous pathways connecting the amygdala and frontal cortex, which, when damaged, impair autobiographical memory. Strangely, other areas of the brain involved in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) were also enlarged, and many of the studies actually showed obsessive compulsive tendencies. LePort suggests that HSAMers may be subconsciously organising memories in the brain in such a way that makes them easier to access later on. 

All of these hypotheses are still developing and there is not yet any conclusive evidence showing how HSAMers’ memories work or whether it can be replicated on one of us ‘average’ humans. Price is still waiting for answers about her power, saying “it has brought me great joy but it has tormented me. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!” However, McGaugh says “none of them would wish away the ability if they could. When I ask what they do when they have a bad memory, they say they conjure up a happy one.” One thing’s for certain, though - it’s a pretty awesome party trick! 

By Poppy Gilks, VI