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They do remember when
December 20, 2010 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Check out this 60 Mminutes segment about people with superior autobiographical memory, who can remember virtually every day of their life.

What really caught my attention and amazed me was the way they can sort, file and recall their memories, that they describe the process as literally being able to see the memories and that they actually still feel the emotions of the memories. It reminded me of the character Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen and his perception of time and the idea of holographic memory, which would enable the storage of a lot of information in a small space, but still retrieved quickly.
posted by nomadicink (40 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
The saying goes that happiness is health and a short memory.

This strikes me as a gift with a major downside.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


This strikes me as a gift with a major downside.

Those who have agreed it wasn't all peaches and cream. It made relationships difficult, because they literally remembered everything and could win any argument based on that. Relieving the emotional memories of things was particularly tough.
posted by nomadicink at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2010


And here's the obligatory "Funes the Memorious" link.
posted by cobra libre at 7:23 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


60 Mmmmminutes!
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:27 AM on December 20, 2010


I see very little potential downside unless you have a lot of trauma in your life. Only one of them had serious problems with it. As for me, I'm insanely jealous of that ability.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:45 AM on December 20, 2010


Here's a very cool piece from Radiolab about the limits of memory: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/apr/05/limits-of-the-mind/
posted by West of House at 7:56 AM on December 20, 2010


And here's the obligatory 'Funes the Memorious' link

It's interesting just how wrong Borges was, no? Maybe it makes us feel better to think we somehow retain superiority over people who have perfect abilities of some kind. The truth is, we don't.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:02 AM on December 20, 2010


Zen master:
screw the past. screw the future. live in the present.
posted by Postroad at 8:05 AM on December 20, 2010


Luria's "The Mind of a Mnemomist" is a good little book to read about this. There seems to be a kind of grid where the closer to full recall a person has the less interesting their lives become.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:11 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Everything looks bad if you remember it."
--Homer Simpson
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:13 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Heh.
posted by Eideteker at 8:20 AM on December 20, 2010


Maybe it makes us feel better to think we somehow retain superiority over people who have perfect abilities of some kind.

Ex. A: Zen master:
screw the past. screw the future. live in the present.


Ex. B: There seems to be a kind of grid where the closer to full recall a person has the less interesting their lives become.

Ex. C: "Everything looks bad if you remember it."

Q.E.D.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:20 AM on December 20, 2010


There seems to be a kind of grid where the closer to full recall a person has the less interesting their lives become.

The people in the CBS piece didn't seem to fit that mold. One is the actress Marilu Henner, who was in the American tv show Taxi, another is a concert violinist, another a radio announcer.

One trait they shared was being mildly obsessive compulsive, they liked organizing stuff. Nothing major, but it was definite trait. Otherwise, they were relatively normal, not idiot savants or anything similar.

They all seemed to enjoy comparing days too, i.e. what was the best March 2nd, the one in 71, 72 or 73? There's a neat segment in the video where one of them verbally walks back through his memories to reach a certain date.
posted by nomadicink at 8:21 AM on December 20, 2010


One trait they shared was being mildly obsessive compulsive, they liked organizing stuff. Nothing major, but it was definite trait. Otherwise, they were relatively normal, not idiot savants or anything similar.

There was a woman making the rounds last year with a similar claim of perfect memory. I remember it being debunked, but I can't find the source. The thesis was that she simply had a form of OCD that caused her to constantly think about her life and what she did that day. Her memory wasn't supernatural, but her constant drive at remembering was, if that makes any sense.
posted by geoff. at 8:29 AM on December 20, 2010


The luggage adds up fast, let me tell you.

And I call it luggage rather than baggage because you have to lug it with you everywhere you go.

But! You learn to cultivate those delicate, rare, sweet moments, like fragile orchids, which you carry with you like a pack lunch. They become your provisions for those days when the weight becomes too much, and you collapse (hopefully onto soft grass). You struggle to shrug off the straps of your pack, rummage through the mess, and pull out a crushed parcel. You unwrap the brown paper to reveal bread of almost the same texture and color, holding warm cold cuts and soggy lettuce. But just a whiff brings you back to your sunlit kitchen, when the ingredients were fresh and the air was crisp with morning dew. You take as large a bite out of that memory as you dare, before cautiously re-wrapping it and placing it somewhere where it hopefully won't get too badly crushed. You try not to pull it out too much, because there's a little bit less of it each time; it grows less substantial, but goddammit, sometimes you just need it to keep you going. Because you know you have to pick that pack up, and start lugging again.

But there will be more sunlit moments, if you can just keep going. And they will be fresh. And there will be friends there, who will carry some of the weight for you. If you can just keep moving.
posted by Eideteker at 8:30 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


> The thesis was that she simply had a form of OCD that caused her to constantly think about her life and what she did that day. Her memory wasn't supernatural, but her constant drive at remembering was, if that makes any sense.

See also, imagined memories under hypnosis. The idea that our brain's memory is a simple photo record that can be browsed with the same verity as a physical album is a bit misleading. What usually happens is associations connect with other associations to re-draw images. Remembering a memory adds and builds on it.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:32 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do they remember everything they read and learn? This would be phenomenal in fields like medicine where you can remember every random fact you learn and can use that at anytime! Or imagine learning a new language every day?!
posted by ruwan at 8:34 AM on December 20, 2010


I've got a buddy who does this. We used to give him random dates, like June 6th, 1993 and he would tell us something like "It was a Friday. That was the day we saw Jurrassic Park, NTD spilled his soda 3 times. The weather was cloudy. The day before we did X, Y and Z." (Note - I'm probably giving the wrong date, and the wrong day of the week - he would do it from the top of his head with maybe a 3 second pause to provide all the information.) On the rare occasion where we thought he was wrong, we m might dispute the day or the contents of what we did, he would correct us and provide the correct chronological data

So for strangers, we'd do this, and we'd give him 3 or 4 dates, each one would be plausable as to what we did, which would surprise people. . We'd then give him trivia questions which he wouldl nail - perfectly. Then, to blow people's mind, we would give him "R32-64T43" and he would tell us that it was the part number for a rear bumper bracket for a 1967 Volkswagon Beetle. People would flip out, until we told them that that last part was a joke...

I'm sure - absolutely positive - if you told him the PN# for that car he would remember it forever.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:40 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do they remember everything they read and learn? This would be phenomenal in fields like medicine where you can remember every random fact you learn and can use that at anytime! Or imagine learning a new language every day?!

The actress mentioned it helped her with memorizing lines and stuff, but none of them indicated it worked exactly as you describe. One was sports announcer and it helped him remember games he'd watched, but the concert violinist didn't indicate whether it helped or hurt her remember pieces of music. I suspect it kinda helps, but not in the photographic memory way.
posted by nomadicink at 8:56 AM on December 20, 2010


this segment was very interesting to me. I have a very very good memory. I can recall birthdays and phone numbers of all my childhood friends and I'm 43 and haven't seen some of them in years. i can recall all sort of seemingly insignificant events - who said what, what people were wearing, what music was playing etc. I don't use a day planner to remember appointments or events. Information i looked up or read because i was curious what something meant remains available until i need it to look like an obnoxious know it all. The information is just there. I completely understand what they mean when they say that. Sometimes it may take a second or two to recall a name or something, but i just have to be patient, let it come to the fore front and there it is. Drives my husband nuts and my sister thinks i just make crap up until she checks it out.

However, these people make me look like an amatuer. To be told a date and have total recall of what happened down to what day of the week it was is fascinating. That is the part that really stands out to me, the autobiographical aspect of it. Of all the random things i can recall, i can't do that with dates. Years, maybe, but specific dates? Amazing. Did they say how long it took them to realize that this wasn't the norm for most people? If they did, i missed it. I imagine until they came to that realization people with normal memories baffled them a little bit.
posted by domino at 9:01 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am the complete opposite of this and think I always have been but I can't be sure.
posted by srboisvert at 9:02 AM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


domino, do you get the: "How do you remember all this stuff?"

I always respond: "How do you forget it?"

And yeah, the OCD thing strikes a chord for me. My memory has definitely gotten less concrete since I learned to stop staying awake running through the entire day until anywhere between 2 and 4 a.m.
posted by Eideteker at 9:19 AM on December 20, 2010


Eideteker, not only how do you remember it, but i get asked why i remember it. I don't know why and i don't know how. It just IS.

I will say i do not have any OCD or even hyper organized tendancies. Not that i am complaining. An very unscientific hypotheses would be that whatever triggers the OCD triggers the very specific dates. I am messy, so therefore my memories, while there are lots of them and many of them are seemingly insignificant, are also disorganzed and messy.
posted by domino at 9:32 AM on December 20, 2010


>I am messy, so therefore my memories, while there are lots of them and many of them are seemingly insignificant, are also disorganzed and messy.

Note that being messy and having OCD often go hand in hand.
posted by circular at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


One was sports announcer and it helped him remember games he'd watched, but the concert violinist didn't indicate whether it helped or hurt her remember pieces of music.

That's because remembering and learning are different things, and use different parts of our memory. It's one thing to remember information from the things that happen in our lives, and it's another thing to learn how to do stuff, like how to drive, how to play an instrument, or how to speak a new language.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:07 AM on December 20, 2010


The Woman Who Can't Forget (Wired article).

I fall in closer with domino on the recall spectrum than people from the CBS article or the lady in the Wired article I linked to. If someone where to ask me a random date, I wouldn't be able to recall it like a fair witness from Stranger In A Strange Land. But there are many events in my life that I can recall with crystal clarity. I can tell you the weather, what people were wearing, what was said, who was standing where, etc.

When I read the Wired article, The Woman Who Can't Forget, I could relate in many ways to how she 'relived' her memories. For me it is very much like two separate memories. There is an objective memory that recalls all of the minute details that can amaze when I relate them back to people who were there at the time. Coupled with that, but not intermixed, is an additional stream that relives the emotional moment. And reliving the moment is a very accurate way of describing the experience. That emotional memory in tandem with the objective, unattached memory, puts me back in that exact moment. The sadness, joy, anger, fear, surprise or whatever emotional state I was in at the time is nearly exactly the same as when I experienced it for the first time. I say nearly exactly because I am able to also rationally realize that it is a memory (despite it also seeming very real) and I am more emotionally mature and aware than I was at say 7, or 12, or 23 years old.

There are some interesting triggers and side-effects of the recall process though. The first is that the memories aren't able to be pulled up like a file being accessed. The memory only seems to come about through organic recollection either through self-reflection or conversation. Meaning, if someone were to directly ask me to remember what happened on my 10th birthday, I would probably be a bit stumped to come up with details. But if the same person and I were having a conversation that naturally led to me remembering an event from my 10th birthday, I could give a storybook account of what occurred.

The other thing is that if I recall the memory to often over a short period of time, the emotional impact of the event fades and with it the details of the objective recall. Interestingly, if I give it time, say maybe a year or more, it can be recalled with the same intensity as if I were remembering it for the first time. Almost as if the memories need to recharge in a way.

After reading the Woman Who Can't Forget, I felt uncomfortable, frustrated and annoyed with the article. I couldn't understand what I didn't like about it and thought on it for several days. Eventually I decided that what bothered me the most was the woman in the article was so incredibly narcissistic in her recollection. Everything in her memories revolved around her.

I then went back and rummaged through the memories that I was keeping. The one thing all of them had in common was that they were important decision making points in my life. Not a major crossroads where the outcome would set me on an unrecoverable direction, but instead little branches of development where I needed to make a decision about who I was, how I reacted, or how I viewed and interacted with another person or group. Each of those little branching paths created a small, but important step in the direction of how I would live my life. At the time, if I were to have chosen a different way of reacting or perceived a situation or person differently for that one incident, it probably wouldn't have had made much of a difference. It wasn't one individual interaction, but instead it was the cumulative momentum of all of those interactions; the building effect from one to the next and the reinforcement from prior decisions that put me onto a path that I didn't even know I was walking. All of those memories are a recollection of how I became the person I am today.

And that's where I realized what bothered me. Yes, the woman from the article was incredibly narcissistic, but so was I. In every single one of those memories, I was more than the key player in the memories, I was the only person who mattered. All of the sadness, joy, anger, fear, surprise were how I felt about a situation. But in my recollections I never feel that FOR anyone. If I recall someone else's birthday, hospitalization, wedding or funeral, I don't remember how I felt for them, but only how I felt about myself.

After that realization, I tried to alter how I remembered. I tried to move the emotional response off of me a toward someone else in the memory. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work that way. It seems that the selfish emotional stimulus and the object recollection are inextricably linked.
posted by bionic.junkie at 10:47 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Whoa. They say they have total autobiographical memory? "... known to possess the skill..." And who's going to 'know' these details to test them to make sure that isn't an illusion?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If it isn't total then what is it?

Human memory is capable of amazing recall, but remembering one event per week isn't all that amazing ... many people can replay many of the scenes in movies (a LOT more bits involved there). Couple the one event with some autisticish date calculation and mix in a little self-kidding... nope, mere anecdote is not adequate.
posted by Twang at 10:55 AM on December 20, 2010


Whoa. They say they have total autobiographical memory? "... known to possess the skill..." And who's going to 'know' these details to test them to make sure that isn't an illusion?

Watch the video.
posted by nomadicink at 11:00 AM on December 20, 2010


Remembering a memory adds and builds on it.

Someone who is an actual neuroscientist, please come along and correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the act of remembering completely replaces the original memory and so on and so on. For the vast majority of people, there is no unadulterated memory file that gets recalled in tact each time you remember it. The very act of remembering changes the memory. What is interesting to me is whether these folks with prodigious memories have the ability to keep the original memory in tact, which would be biologically different from regular people, or whether they just are able to make perfect copies of the original memory each time they recall (so the process of remembering is the same, but there is no decay or agglutination or whatever over time).
posted by Falconetti at 11:22 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The other thing is that if I recall the memory to often over a short period of time, the emotional impact of the event fades and with it the details of the objective recall."

This is what I was trying to get at with my flower-become-sandwich metaphor (just call me Sir Mix-a-Metaphor).
posted by Eideteker at 11:24 AM on December 20, 2010


What I don't get is they keep on saying that this is "completely new" to science, but I heard stories about tortured souls with photographic memory 20-30 years ago. Is it just new research? Or am I just not seeing the difference between "photographic" and "autobiographical" memory?
posted by moonbiter at 11:33 AM on December 20, 2010


Hm. I had been wondering if the name "Eideteker" had some history behind it, or if it was just being ironic. Now I know, and I expect you to remember this post forever. FOREVER.

Or am I just not seeing the difference between "photographic" and "autobiographical" memory?

I don't know. There are whole Wikipedia articles on "exceptional memory," on hyperthymesia (autobiographical memory), and another on eidetic memory (photographic memory), none of which I will link to because I don't want to subject you to Jimmy Wales's creepy stare off into the distance. But the difference among the different types of memories is laid out pretty well, and really interesting to read about.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:52 AM on December 20, 2010


From the Wikipedia article on Eidetic (Photographic) memory, emphasis mine:
Eidetic memory as observed in children is typified by the ability of an individual to study an image for approximately 30 seconds, and maintain a nearly perfect photographic memory of that image for a short time once it has been removed—indeed such eidetickers claim to "see" the image on the blank canvas as vividly and in as perfect detail as if it were still there. Much like any other memory, the intensity of the recall may be subject to several factors such as duration and frequency of exposure to the stimulus, conscious observation, relevance to the person, etc. This fact stands in contrast to the general misinterpretation of the term which assumes a constant and total recall of all events.
posted by nomadicink at 11:54 AM on December 20, 2010


'Funes el memorioso'
posted by clavdivs at 1:16 PM on December 20, 2010


Robert Silverberg's classic story "The Man Who Never Forgot".

He remembered everything. He remembered his parents' quarrels and repeated the exact words of them to anyone who cared to listen, until his father whipped him and threatened to kill him if he ever did that again. He remembered that, too. He remembered the lies his brother and sister told and took great pains to set the record straight. He learned eventually not to do that, either. He remembered things people had said and corrected them when they later deviated from their earlier statements.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:23 PM on December 20, 2010


I don't have to remember this post forever.

MetaFilter/archive.org will do that for me.

Eidetic outsourcing.
posted by Samizdata at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I actually saw this as it aired -- the first 60 Minutes segment I've seen in ages. But I had a terrible time taking it seriously. This is because, early in the segment, I had a vision of Andy Rooney hosting it, rather than Leslie Stahl. I spent the rest of the segment pretending to be an interviewer to the super-remember-ers. In my best trembling querulous Rooney voice, I'd bark to the screen things like:

"June 1974: how much was a postage stamp?"

"Think back to your childhood -- didn't bananas taste so much better then?"

"After the first time you finally get a real live person when you call the telephone company, do you remember how to do it again, so you don't have to listen to that awful awful robot?"

"Who among you remembers where I put my keys?"


Anyway, it was an interesting segment, I guess. But I weep for the missed opportunity.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:33 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actress Marilu Henner is becoming known for more than just "Taxi." She's one of the handful of people who scientists say can remember their entire lives.

Not so much for Reverend Jim Ignatowski.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:53 PM on December 20, 2010


Good god; I get halfway down the hall and don't remember what I'm doing, where I'm going, or why I'm going there. I just keep going in the hopes that something will remind me why I'm carrying duct tape in one hand and a jar of vicks vapor rub in the other.
posted by dejah420 at 7:54 PM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


But the difference among the different types of memories is laid out pretty well, and really interesting to read about.

Yes, but I'm just wondering if this is simply a refining of terminology more than anything else. My own memory is not so awesome, but I'm pretty sure that back when I was a psych undergrad years and years ago, what they are referring to as "autobiographical memory" here was recognized to exist in some individuals, although the terminology used was different. I suppose it was just the "oh my gosh, this is all new," tone of the piece that threw me.

That, and the "oh sure, you have good memories, but you're unlucky in love!" bit of schadenfreude the reporter seemed to have there at the end.
posted by moonbiter at 6:11 AM on December 21, 2010


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