By Sharan Mujoo
Episode 12, Season 7 of House M.D. starts in a diner, where a waitress can be seen cleaning up a table when a customer on the table next to it calls her for an order. With a courteous acknowledgement, the waitress replies, “I’m afraid the teriyaki chicken is no longer on the menu.” The lady customer gives a puzzled look. In response to the bewildered expression, the waitress says, “Oh! I’m sorry, that’s what you had last time.” Unable to trace the memory of last time, the woman refuses to accept the waitress’ statement. The waitress then goes on to describe in detail the woman’s visit last year, which includes her hairstyle, dress and the puffiness of her eyes. Fast forward a couple of minutes into the episode and the waitress is found lying on the floor with her legs paralysed. While the final diagnoses pointed towards Mcleod’s Syndrome, a neurological disease, the waitress’ ability to recall with near perfect detail almost every single detail of her life since the onset of puberty was attributed to hyperthymesia.
Afflictions of the disorder
Now better known as HSAM or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, the rare condition was first reported in 2006 by neuroscientist and memory researcher James McGaugh from the University of California, Irvine. A woman by the name of Jill Price emailed the professor asking for help to explain her experiences. Intrigued, Dr McGaugh invited her to his lab in order to investigate this rare ability. Along with his team, McGaugh was able to establish a strong association with dates in Price’s memory. She could recall, in extreme detail, events of her life which had transpired years ago. The recall would be spontaneous almost every time, requiring little or no effort, as if it was not being consciously done.
Another researcher, Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI’s Centre for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory says “..we’re getting a descriptive, coherent story of what’s going on.” “These are not memory experts across the board. They’re 180 degrees different from the usual memory champions who can memorize pi to a large degree or other long strings of numbers,” LePort said. “It makes the project that much more interesting; it really shows we are homing in on a specific form of memory. You give them a date, and their response is immediate. The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don’t even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they’re 99 percent accurate. It never gets old.” LePort was perplexed while interviewing the candidates. Intriguingly, the research by LePort showed statistically significant signs of OCD amongst these individuals. Many of them had vast catalogued collections of magazines, stamps, and videos.
It is important though, to distinguish HSAM from savant syndrome or an eidetic memory, which gives an individual the ability to remember even impersonal issues through various strategies such as mnemonics. Moreover, autistic savants use calendrical calculations in order to reproduce memories. However, people with HSAM are as good as average when It comes to memorising new impersonal information.
Neuroanatomical investigations by researchers over the past decade have revealed underlying structures which are morphologically distinguishable from control subjects. Areas such as the frontal cortex, hippocampus and the visual cortex show an increased presence of white matter in individuals with HSAM. Most differences are in areas linked to autobiographical memory. “The next step is that we want to understand the mechanisms behind the memory,” LePort said. “Is it just the brain and the way its different structures are communicating? Maybe it’s genetic; maybe it’s molecular.” McGaugh added: “We’re searching for clues in a very new area of research.” Nevertheless, the disorder is yet to be understood completely. There is still considerable debate as to whether the increased neural connections were inherently present or developed due to the excessive memory recall which is always happening.
A gift or a curse?
While on the surface HSAM may appear to be a gift, it comes with its baggage. Constantly living in the past and experiencing unpleasant or traumatic events can be depressing and stressing, not allowing the individual to lead a normal life. These individuals do not have the choice to forget. As a result, it can be hard to move on from these events. While HSAM has its advantages as well, it must not be confused with having a perfect memory. In fact, these individuals do show susceptibility to false memories, as studied by Lawrence Patihis from the University of Mississippi.
What could be the culprit?
Patihis, along with his colleagues, also observed these individuals to understand their memorising habits. In a cohort of 20 HSAM individuals, fantasy proneness and absorption were common. While the former is a tendency to daydream, the latter means immersion of the mind in the activity. Patihis believes immersion helps in establishing strong foundations for recall whereas fantasy leads to a constant recollection of these memories. Even after these insights, Patihis agrees that it is hard to establish a singular cause-effect relation for HSAM.
There are many questions which arise from the investigations done so far. Why is it that this disorder was first reported only recently? Is there a mutation which only developed recently causing this disorder to develop? Are there individuals who are successfully coping with this disorder without any external help? What does having such ability do to relationships?
The mysteries of the human brain never cease to amaze and we are only at a nascent stage when it comes to understanding it. It may be that we have superhumans living amongst us capable of feats we can only imagine. As science develops its capabilities to probe deeper into the world, we can be assured that more is to come, much more.
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