“MEMORY WIZARDS” is the title of a chapter in “THE MEMORY ILLUSION” by psychologist Julia Shaw, Ph.D. The subtitle is HSAMs, braincams, and islands of genius. The teaching point of the chapter is “Why no one has infallible memory.”
The idea of a braincam was that memory was like a video recorder keeping track of everything we do. This idea was promulgated by American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in his 1952 publication, “Memory Mechanisms.” Penfield’s work as a neurosurgeon required him to probe different portions of the brain, so that he could identify the correct areas to perform surgery. During this probing, his patients who were awake, the brain does not feel pain itself, patients would report vivid memories of particular instances in their lives. Not surprisingly, this led to the notion of a braincam effectively recording each of our lives. However, in spite of the vividness of the recall, there was no way to confirm the accuracy of these recalls and to distinguish them from visions generated from the stimulation. After much additional work was done regarding memory, the notion of a braincam was discarded, and memory was found to be highly error prone. Moreover, the confidence expressed in a memory did not correlate well with the accuracy of the memory.
HSAM stands for highly successful autobiographical memory. There have been several prior HM posts on HSAM. Perhaps one of the most interesting HM posts is titled “The Importance of Memory.” The actress Marilu Henner, who was one of the stars on the TV Program “Taxi” is also a HSAMer. She has written a book “Total Memory Makeover,” which has been summarized in the HM post “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us.” HSAMers can provide detailed accounts of their lives by date. That is, if you asked what happened to them on 29 August 1999, they could tell you in an amazing amount of detail. Still, they cannot tell you everything, and what they do provide can sometimes, but not frequently, contain an error. In other respects, their memories are similar to the rest of us. If given a list of words to remember, their performance will correspond to the rest of us. And they make similar errors as we do with respect to false memories. Dr. Shaw says that she does not see any particular advantage that HSAMers have. Apparently, she has not read Marilu Henner’s book, because Henner says that her ability has helped her as an actress. She feels that her ability has provided insights into the why and wherefores of others.
Photographic memory is another topic on which most people have misconceptions. The technical term for photographic memory is eidetic memory. Here’s how it is tested. An unfamiliar picture is shown to participants on an easel for 30 seconds. This might not seem like much time, but researchers often this limited viewing time because most people neither continue encoding detail nor care to after 30 seconds looking at the same picture. After the image has been removed the person is instructed to describe everything they can about the picture. People with eidetic memory report that they can still see the picture, that they can scan and examine their personal memory of the image as if it were still in front of them. Eidetic images differ from regular visual memories which can arguably last forever. Eidetic images can last only a couple of minutes. The images usually fade away piece by piece rather than as a whole, and the eidetiker has no control over which components remain in memory. However, even eidetikers can misremember entire objects and forget pieces of scenes. So their exceptional memories for a particular image can still have some flaws.
Moreover, it appears that this kind of memory only exists in children. In one of the few reviews of the literature on this topic dated back to 1975, researchers Cynthia Gray and Kent Gummeran estimated that 5% of children have eidetic memory and 0% of adults do.
Then there are the idiot savants such as depicted in the Oscar winning movie Rain Man. Here the exceptional memories are linked to some abnormality such as autism. So these memories are purchased at an outrageous cost. The simple point is that forgetting is needed. It is obviously needed in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where traumatic memories either need to be forgotten or accommodated.
The teaching point of the chapter is more than “Why no one has infallible memory.” It is “no one wants an infallible memory.” Infallible memories lead to too many memories, memories that interfere with the important information that needs to be remembered.
The Healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness. Meditation helps us gain control of our valuable, but limited, resource of attention. We need to be able to focus our attention to use it to best advantage.
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