Perfect memory ? Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that people with HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory ) are simply born with brains that differ from normal brains and that innate structural differences in the brains of people with HSAM are what allow for their exceptional autobiographical memory abilities. For example, maybe they are born with enhanced connectivity among brain regions critical to autobiographical memory.

A more interesting possibility, however, is that the brain differences (as well as the remarkable autobiographical memory ability) result from unique experiences that occur during development.

Experiences themselves cause changes in the brain to take place. For example, it has long been known that the brains of rats exposed to an enriching environment during development differ from those of rats exposed to an impoverished environment—rats in an enriched environment show increased cortical weight and numbers of glial cells and also show benefits to memory ability.

Research on musical training is an excellent example of how experiences can impact the structure of the human brain, as discussed in this New York Times article and this Scientific American blog and reviewed here. Researchers have known for some time that the brains of musicians differ from those of non-musicians, but researchers have questioned whether this is due to innate differences between musicians and non-musicians. However, recent evidence suggests that musical training itself contributes to the brain differences between the musically trained and untrained. One study showed that children given 15 months of musical training exhibited structural changes in their brain relative those that did not. More recently, researchers at Northwestern showed that neural changes that appear to result from musical training in childhood persist into adulthood.

If structural brain differences between the musically-trained and untrained in adulthood can result from childhood training in that domain, then what type of experience or training could potentially underlie the brain differences shown in people with HSAM?

Actress Marilu Henner, who was one of the participants in the research by McGaugh and colleagues (as shown in this “60 Minutes” episode), may provide some clues in her book on her experience with HSAM and on autobiographical memory. In it, she describes a pastime of hers during childhood. “I decided to play a little game with myself, in which I tried to remember every day that had led up to that moment starting with the most recent What did I do a week ago? Two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? I even started to go back to the previous years and the year before that, remembering specific days from first grade and kindergarten. Over time, this exercise became not only my routine to fall asleep, but also a way to mentally challenge and exercise my brain to the point that I could ‘time-travel’ back to: What did we do each day of our vacation? What was I doing when I was exactly the day my younger brother Lorin’s age? My Niece Lizzy’s age?”

It seems plausible that this type of “training” or memory practice during childhood could lead to structural changes in the brain that are detectable in adulthood and correlated with HSAM.

Read this full article here at PsychologyToday 

An extremely rare condition may transform our understanding of memory


If you ask Jill Price to remember any day of her life, she can come up with an answer in a heartbeat. What was she doing on 29 August 1980? “It was a Friday, I went to Palm Springs with my friends, twins, Nina and Michelle, and their family for Labour Day weekend,” she says. “And before we went to Palm Springs, we went to get them bikini waxes. They were screaming through the whole thing.” Price was 14 years and eight months old.

What about the third time she drove a car? “The third time I drove a car was January 10 1981. Saturday. Teen Auto. That’s where we used to get our driving lessons from.” She was 15 years and two weeks old.

The first time she heard the Rick Springfield song Jessie’s Girl? “March 7 1981.” She was driving in a car with her mother, who was yelling at her. She was 16 years and two months old.

Price was born on 30 December 1965 in New York City. Her first clear memories start from around the age of 18 months. Back then, she lived with her parents in an apartment across the street from Roosevelt Hospital in Midtown Manhattan. She remembers the screaming ambulances and traffic, how she used to love climbing on the living room couch and staring out of the window down 9th Avenue.

When she was five years and three months old, her family – her father, a talent agent with William Morris who counted Ray Charles among his clients; her mother, a former variety show dancer, and her baby brother – moved to South Orange, New Jersey. They lived in a three-storey, red brick colonial house with a big backyard and huge trees, the kind of place people left the city for. Jill loved it.

When she was seven years old, her father was offered a job with Columbia Pictures Television in Los Angeles. He spent a year commuting back and forth from California to New Jersey, until he and her mother decided to move the family out there in the spring of 1974. By 1 July 1974, when Jill was eight and a half, they were living in a rented house in Los Angeles. That was the day, she says, her “brain snapped”.

She had always had a talent for remembering. She had also always dreaded change. Knowing that after they left New Jersey, nothing could ever be the same, Price tried to commit to memory the world she was being ripped away from. She made lists, took pictures, kept every artefact, every passed note and ticket stub. If this was a conscious effort to train her memory, it worked, perhaps better than she ever imagined.

Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.

Read this full article at TheGuardian 

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