Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Persistence of Memory


I heard an interview with AJ, the woman with hyperthymestic syndrome, on Morning Edition this morning. She has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and other details (i.e. what day of the week it was, what was going on in the world at the time.) Her friends and family call her "the human calendar."

I find this intriguing for a variety of reasons. For starters, there is the obvious fascination which we all feel when we are exposed to some extreme human ability we had previously never considered possible. Hearing about her memory abilities was like seeing the Mongolian contortionists in Cirque de Soleil. It's hard not to be slightly envious of someone who can wrap their legs around their neck when one spends one's time in yoga class struggling to maintain a split. And, of course, when I heard about AJ, I got a little twinge. Because, while I know I have a good memory, that is like saying I have good flexibility--while it may be better than the average person's, it isn't that astounding and no group of scientists will be studying me. And while I know that superior flexibility or superior memory means nothing in and of itself, I imagine all the amazing things I could do with it, if it were mine, like be a better dancer or ace the SATs--alright, the things I would do aren't all that impressive. (For what it's worth, AJ mentioned she hadn't used her fabulous memory to cure cancer or do anything important. She said that while she wouldn't trade it because it made her who she is, it has been a burden.)

But then I heard more. Although she has an astounding memory, it didn't do much for her in school because she was not terribly good at rote memorization.

This struck a chord.

For years I have told people that I have a fly paper brain, that my ability to recall information is inversely proportional to the importance of the information; so while I have difficulty remembering important details about Japanese culture, details which are in the thesis I wrote 13 years ago, I have no problem recalling the words to Duran Duran's The Chauffeur, a song I have not listened to since I was 13.

I once told a director, in an audition situation, that I had photographic short term memory when they are stunned that I remember copy "word for word." Of course, it wasn't true, I was just lucky. I don't really have photographic memory of any sort, I didn't even believe such a thing existed, and I was always was a little annoyed when people told me they possessed one because it sounded like they were bragging (it was always in an academic situation.)

But it appears that AJ does possess a photographic memory. She describes it as being like taking a video of every day and having access to that video at all times. She remembers every event, every breakup, every pain, and every joy in perfect detail as if it happened just yesterday. While she has time to give her distance, she does not have the luxury of forgetting. For her, the jagged rocks of experience remain forever jagged because, for some reason, her brain will not allow them to erode. Of course, she also has the ability to recall moments of joy with perfect accuracy, so while she is a prisoner of her memories, the prison isn't always unpleasant.

I wonder how this ability of hers has affected the story of herself which she tells herself. We are all the protagonists of our own great epic tale and we are continually writing the story. We think we are accurate, we think we know what really happened to us, but our past is forever changing. For most of us, how we see our past depends upon where we are in the present and what we want to see. To quote Milan Kundera, "The past is cloaked in multicolored taffeta and every time we look at it we see a different hue." And since this accumulation of experience forms the bulk of our personal narrative, what we remember about ourselves (and what we forget) defines who we are. How does one's story differ from another's if one's memory is exceedingly accurate?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Zane Deaselcrisp said...

What I want to know is: Since memory evolves over time (since it's subject to interpretation), can AJ 'cross-check' her memories againt each other and, over time, cause them to change?

12:44 PM, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous hedda said...

I also listened to this story; i was really excited about it when they gave the teaser but was surprisingly not impressed by AJ. I guess it was because, as you said, she hasn't done anything with it and is so... normal-sounding. I found myself wondering how she rated in terms of other cognitive abilities and why she wasn't curing cancer or trying to take over the world. To me, I suppose, having an ability is not important if it's not used for something, perhaps because of all of the art school asses i know who are too tormented by their genius to do anything. And if all an ability does is cause pain, then...? It makes me kind of glad that I have to write everything down and use memory devices to get through an ordinary day. I get to make up a past.

4:51 PM, April 26, 2006  
Anonymous jenny said...

This would make for an interesting story idea... how does she reconcile being able to remember everything with constant reinterpretation of the past / lies we tell ourselves. How does her boyfriend win an argument?

5:30 PM, April 26, 2006  

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