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The burden of an eidetic memory

Updated on March 10, 2016

Definition of eidetic : marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual images <an eidetic memory>

This should not be confused with a photographic memory, where one is capable of retaining vivid impressions. This is a visual memory, whereas an eidetic memory is not only visual – it also encompasses everything the person reads, hears or sees.

I wasn’t even aware of the difference until I was an adult. My mother had me convinced that I had a lousy memory, since I kept recalling things she did not. Then one day my father and I were discussing the first house they owned, in Baldwin, New York (I lived there from about one year old to five). He and I reconstructed the whole floorplan, while my mother, who cleaned that house for four years, could recall none of it.

I was chatting with a psychologist once, about my memory. I explained to her:

I can tell you how Descartes started with “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) and ended up proving the existence of God. I can tell you I read it in a red book, about 1/5 of the way in, starting on the left page about halfway down. What I cannot tell you is the name of the book or its author/publisher.

She listened intently, then said it was obvious – I have no respect for authority!

How right she was, as all my friends know.

My earliest memory was of being in the kitchen in Baldwin. There were a lot of adults around me. One of them offered me a juice glass full of beer. When I downed it they were all entertained that I would do so. I related this incident to my father and he remembered it – he said I was one and a half years old at the time!

I suspect my father also had an eidetic memory, considering his love of odd facts, and his rise as a self-made man with only an Electrical Engineering Associate degree. His constant thirst for knowledge infected me and mine.

One would expect that such a memory would be a blessing. But it keeps a person from breaking ties with the past when these ties are painful and unproductive.

Every time I eat an orange I remember my mother showing me how to peel it with a spoon.

Every time I eat a liverwurst sandwich, which is one of my favorites, I remember my father showing me how to make one. I was maybe eight. I remarked that instead of liverwurst, it should be called shmearwurst, and he laughed.

Both of my parents are dead now, and these constant memories make me miss them all over again.

My grown daughter has labeled me “toxic” (thanks to her social worker counselor?) and will have nothing to do with me. I should by all rights write her off and continue on with my life. But there are so many memories of her dancing, her as a photogenic and charming little girl… I keep a stuffed bear in my car. One Valentine’s Day morning (my daughter was in her teens) I got in my car to go to work and found a helium balloon, card, and this bear outfitted with aviator goggles, a leather helmet and a silk scarf. I name him Flybear and keep him in my car as my co-pilot. I am constantly bombarded with memories of how she showed her love to me and the reverse. Makes it hard to let go.

Injustices never disappear. The kid in school who spread untrue stories about me; the landlord who put greed ahead of courtesy and fairness; the incompetent probate court and attorney that decimated my mother’s estate; the boss from hell; the bank that wouldn’t work with me to save my home from the economic crisis – every instance where despite my efforts I was left hopeless and helpless can rear up in my mind at the slightest provocation, there to stew and whirlwind with no closure. This is why I need to have the television on when I go to sleep – I need a program to hold my attention so I can fall asleep in the middle of its running. Sometimes I am awake until dawn, when the television cure doesn’t work.

Then there’s the stigma of being a know-it-all. Apparently everything I read even as a schoolchild is tucked away in the little gray cells. When a question arises about, say, what is the “top” of a banana, I have the answer right on my finger tips. And I know the answer is correct, despite an inability to cite the source of my knowledge. My mother, also a voracious reader, had the same knack, and I knew never to doubt her answers to my childhood curiosity. Unfortunately, other people resent a walking encyclopedia, not just because it demonstrates their lack of knowledge, but it makes them feel stupid. In my opinion, they are not stupid at all, but rather just don’t remember running into that fact. Nonetheless, I have been called on the carpet for this air of superiority by bosses, friends, relatives, ‘professionals’ and strangers. I have spent my life trying to dose information with humility to prevent bruising egos, and I fail miserably.

The last problem is with change. While I am a risk-taker and embrace change, I don’t always know it occurred. For example, in the 1960s, the atom was depicted as being the same as our solar system, with electrons orbiting around the nucleus. In the 1970s these orbits were adjusted to be barbell-shaped. By the 1990s there were no orbits, but rather a cloud where each electron actually exists in more than one place at a time. Granted, these are theories rather than facts, but physicists feel they have ‘proven’ the theories.

Historians, archeologists and scientists are constantly rewriting facts according to new findings. A person who simply absorbs everything needs to learn when this information is updated before opening mouth and inserting foot. That’s an awful lot of stuff to track.

There’s also the problem of misinformation. The eidetic memory does not discern veracity. With all the information in the Internet, television and even in personal experiences, one can absorb a lot of wrong data without realizing it. I will research information if it doesn’t “feel right”, and I have a friend who is a lawyer and history buff who occasionally sets me straight. I don’t mind being corrected, but it does mean that one needs to research information a la James Michener to be sure of the facts. What is legal in one state is prosecutable in another.

The upside of this condition is in research. Having such a huge amount of data available, one can see patterns and links that are missed by others working with more tunnel vision. But in any other phase of life, I don’t see it as a good thing.

© 2016 Bonnie-Jean Rohner


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