Memory Wizards

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Memory Wizards

Hyperthymesia, or Superior Autobiographical Memory, has become more prominently known thanks to the TV series, Unforgettable and the publicity surrounding Marilu Henner, who is one the very few known people in the world with the super-memory ability. Now 60 Minutes has followed up on an earlier story on the subject, including the finding of young people with the condition.

In 2010 60 Minutes did a story on hyperthymesia, a newly diagnosed condition where people are able to experience their memories nearly perfectly - all of them. The actress Marilu Henner is one of the very few people with the condition and was featured on the episode. In the initial 60 Minutes story, only six people were identified.

Now, based on new cases that have come forward in the intervening years, correspondent Lesley Stahl has presented a follow-up story.

The scientist who first identified this condition and has been studying it ever since, is Dr. James McGaugh at the University of California Irvine.

Some of the defining characteristics of hyperthymesia are the ability to “see” depictions of days in their heads with no conscious effort and recollect events that hold personal significance. It is distinguished from other forms of exceptional memory in that it does not involve any form or practice or mnemonic tricks to store information. Studies have shown that hyperthymestics are not like autistic savants but they do exhibit an interest in dates, which they use extensively to categorize when a particular event in their lives happened.

As McGaugh sees it, "We are pretending that we are Sherlock Holmes. We've arrived on the scene of a crime of something that's unusual. All of a sudden, we have a new phenomenon of memory, and we’re trying to figure out how it is that this happened."

Most interesting is that  young boys, Jake Hausler, age 10 and Tyler Hickenbottom, 11 have been identified.

Jake Hausler
Jake Hausler - Image Source CBS News
Moreover, Hickenbottom happens to be an identical twin. He and his brother Chad share the same genes, yet not the same memory ability.

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McGaugh and his team haven’t scanned Chad and Tyler’s brains yet to see what secrets they might hold, but they have put Jake into an MRI scanner, as well as many of the adults. The latest findings show a more active pathway between the front and back of the brain.

"That would say that the reason that they can do that, in part, might be because the different parts of the brain have greater access to each other," says McGaugh,  "And so that is exciting. And we're gonna have to explore that in more detail."

According to Dr. McGaugh,
Do they have in their brains retrieval mechanisms for memory that we don't have? Now if that's the case, that would suggest the possibility that we have all those memories. We're just like them, but we don't have the hooks to get the memories out. Wouldn't that be interesting? If that were the case, the possibility would be that we could do something which would make those memories come out better. Wouldn't that be exciting?


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