Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Might She Tell Us?

Perhaps the first question is what is a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). There have been a variety of studies about people with superior memories. Perhaps the first was Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist. This was about an individual with synesthesia wherein different senses interacted with each other, sound producing images for example. This ability to readily form images produced remarkable abilities. The man made a living demonstrating these abilities. Unfortunately this amazing ability to remember also had the downside of an inability to forget. Consequently his life wasn’t as happy as it might have been. There are also books by people like Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas who discovered mnemonic techniques, like those covered in this blog, developed a great deal of proficiency with them, performed, wrote books, and taught classes about mnemonics.

The discovery of HSAM is very recent. This is not to say that HSAM has not been present in certain individuals for centuries, but the research community has been unaware of such individuals. I was unaware of these people until I viewed a piece on the TV Program Sixty Minutes. Dr. James McGaugh, a Research Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a Fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California-Irvine, became aware of and started studying these extraordinary people. To the best of my knowledge only about 34 such individuals have been identified and studied so far. The nature of this recall ability as shown on Sixty Minutes was the ability to recall what happened on a specific day in the past. So if you asked one of them what happened on 6 August 1999, they would be able to tell you what day of the week that was, and what they did. They might even be able to tell you what they wore and what they ate. If they had watched a sporting event, they could tell the score and the particulars of the event. Marilu Henner, who most of us know from the TV show Taxi and who has had a very successful acting career, was one of the people on the show. When I later learned that she had written a book, Total Memory Makeover, I was tempted to buy but was a little put off by the hype in the title. As I looked further into it I learned that Marilu had a self-improvement business. So my initial decision was not to purchase the book. As time passed, I realized that I could not pass up the opportunity to learn what someone who had such a remarkable memory had to offer. It was a good decision. Here’s what Professor McGaugh wrote in the Foreword to the book. “This book is like no other book about memory, and the insights offered are unique. In these pages we learn from Marilu what it is like to have such a memory, why it is important to her, and why she thinks we can all benefit by taking steps to improve our own remembering. Readers will learn that Marilu is as well organized as she is thoughtful, insightful, enthusiastic, and, well, delightfully humorous. The advice she offers us may not turn all of us (or any of us)into HSAMers, but every reader will learn much about the importance of memory, as well as things we might do to help us maintain memories of our own personal experiences.”

Brain scans of Marilu have shown that certain brain structures important to memory, such as the hippocampus, are larger than normal. But it is important not to confuse cause and effect here. London cab drivers have also found to have hippocampi larger than normal, but this has been attributed to them having to memorize the entire map of London. So it is likely that Marilu’s larger than normal memory structures are the result of her use of them rather than having been born with them.

I found her home life significant. Her father emphasized anticipating an event, participating in the event, and then recollecting the event (her book is organized into three sections of anticipating, participating, and recollection). They liked to have parties and enjoyed the anticipation and the recollection of the parties, and not just the participation in the parties. As a small child she would not only pay attention to the day, date, and month, but would also remember what happened during the day. Then she would periodically review what happened during a past day, week, or month. I was gratified to learn this as I suspected this is what these HSAMers had been doing. Most often, I do not even know what day it is now and need to consult a calendar. So I pay little attention to when something is happening, and I do not systematically review what has happened during these dates. This is something that is entirely feasible, if one has the discipline. Recall actually increases as the time between recall attempts increases. So one might review what happened during the preceding week. Then not review it again until the next month. Then two months, four months, six months, one year, two years, four years. So systematic review is feasible and such review could result in becoming a blossoming HSAMer.

Marilu developed a variety of techniques throughout her life and shares them with you. She also discusses uses of technology and our fellow humans to enhance memory. This is termed transactive memory in the lingo of the healthymemory blog. She discusses memory games for friends, family, and for the development of the memories of children.

The book delivers what the title promises, a Total Memory Makeover. However, there is no requirement that the makeover be total. You can devote as much time as your interest and schedule permits. I think whatever time you devote to this effort will foster a healthy memory. Virtually everything offered in the book will foster a healthy memory.

If you are a parent or grandparent, I would strongly recommend that you get the book and use some of the games and exercises with your children. Perhaps the best gift you can give them is a healthy, well functioning memory. This is even more important with the temptation to rely increasingly on technology instead of our biological memories.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Might She Tell Us?”

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