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Remembering It All, Living with Hyperthymestic Syndrome

Updated on May 27, 2019
The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dali
The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dali

Most of us would like to have a better memory and be able to recall our childhood days. Often many of our memories are just fragments of our past, bit and pieces of scenes from our lives. Unlike the rest of us, Jill Price has the extraordinary ability to recall facts and events, including the dates of these events, from the time she was fourteen. Her memories are vivid and the emotions she felt during those times are still as fresh as when she originally felt them. In Psychology Today Magazine in an article titled “Total Recall’ Jill Price describes her memories in the following way: “My memories are like scenes from home movies, constantly playing in my head, relentlessly flashing forward and backward through the years, taking me to any given moment, entirely of their own volition.” Jill has what is known as Hyperthymestic syndrome.

Hyperthymestic syndrome also known as Hyperthymesia is a condition where the individual is affected with a superior, autobiographical memory. Thymesia comes from the Greek word themesis meaning memory. The two defining characteristics of Hyperthymestic syndrome are: 1) the person spends significantly large amounts of time thinking about their personal past. 2) The person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from his or her personal past.

There have only been four confirmed cases of Hyperthymestic syndrome. The first case that has been discovered was around 2002. Jill Price, whose unique ability to remember events and dates were studied by researchers, Dr. James McGaugh, Elizabeth Parker and Larry Cahill from the University of California, Irving. Dr. McGaugh categorized her unique ability as autobiographical in nature. As the research took place Jill came to realize the role that memory plays in everyone’s life. In regards to that she stated the following: “I came to realize in a flash of insight one day that whereas memory generally contributes to the construction of a sense of self, in my case, my memory is my sense of self.”

During the research Dr. McGaugh conducted MRI brain scans that were sent to a specialist to seek out any anomalies that would pinpoint any structural reason why her memory worked the way it did. They discovered that more than two dozen areas of her brain were a good deal larger than normal and some were extraordinarily large. The researchers are hoping that these studies offer answers in the fight against memory loss.

The second case study, was on a man from Wisconsin, named Brad Williams. He has even been dubbed as the human Google by Good Morning America. His brother, Eric Williams, a screen writer and film maker made a film chronicling his brother's amazing memory, titled Unforgettable. Eric Williams follows his brother, Brad’s journey, as his amazing memory catapulted him from being an unknown, to midlife notoriety. Like Jill, Brad had a diary like recall of ordinary events that most people forget. Brad has the extraordinary ability of remembering every event of everyday since the age of five. His extraordinary memory is also being researched by the researchers of the University of California, Irving. Both Brad and Jill are not savants, but both have a capacity for remembering events that goes beyond the norm.

The next person to be identified as having Hyperthymestic syndrome is a man from Cleveland, Ohio, whose name is Rick Baron. Rick is able to recall everyday from the age of eleven on in detail. He is even able to recall many days between the ages of seven and eleven. He would win countless prizes in memory challenge games like Trivial Pursuit. His sister suggested that he contact the memory experts in Irving.

Rick has used his fantastic memory to win restaurant gift certificates, clothing, tickets to sporting events and concerts, as well as 14 vacations. Like Price and Williams, Rick also became of aware of his unique ability in when he was a child.

The last individual to be identified with Hyperthymestic syndrome is Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky, who lived from 1886 to 1958.

Solomon, a Russian journalist, became famous during one event where he was chided for not taking notes during a speech in the mid 1920’s, yet to the astonishment of everyone he had memorized the speech verbatim. Solomon participated in various behavioral studies conducted by neuropsychologist, Dr. Alexander Luria over the span of thirty years. During the research Solomon was asked to memorize complex mathematical formulas, huge matrices, and even poems in foreign languages and he would do so in minutes. Despite having an astounding memory Shereshevsky had average score in intelligence tests.Solomon also had problems were associated with his extraordinary memory. He had an overactive imagination, which produced distracting images and feelings. He also had trouble remember faces.

Based on his studies Dr. Luria diagnosed Solomon as having an extremely strong version of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is when stimulation in one of the senses cause sensations in the other four. For example is Solomon heard a musical tune, he would then see color, and it would cause a sensation in his other senses as well.One time he went to buy ice cream, but when the vendor spoke, her tone caused Solomon to see whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, his thoughts were so vivid, that he couldn’t bring himself to buy ice cream.

Having an extraordinary memory might have its advantages, but it also has its drawbacks. These extraordinary individuals have had to face challenges that most of us could never imagine, if the memories are sad or unpleasant, forgetting can be a blessing. There are events in the lives of many that most people would rather not remember, and being able to forget is a blessing. However, people like Brad and Jill are helping researchers find a way to discover the secrets of memory and even come closer to discovering ways of preventing such diseases as Alzheimer. Memory is not what defines us, but without it life would often fail to make sense.


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