Hyperthymesia, also known as piking, hyperthymestic syndrome or highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), is a condition in which an individual possesses a superior autobiographical memory, meaning he or she can recall the vast majority of personal experiences and events in his or her life. The term “hyperthymesia" is derived from the Greek words hyper meaning "excessive" and thymesis meaning "remembering".
As first described in a 2006 Neurocase article by Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, Dr. Paul Tejera, and James McGaugh, the two defining characteristics of hyperthymesia are "1) the person spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past, and 2) the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from his or her personal past".
Individuals with hyperthymesia can recall almost every day of their lives in near perfect detail, as well as public events that hold some personal significance to them. Those affected describe their memories as uncontrollable associations, when they encounter a date, they "see" a vivid depiction of that day in their heads. Recollection occurs without hesitation or conscious effort.
It is important to draw a distinction between those with hyperthymesia and those with other forms of exceptional memory, who generally use mnemonic or similar rehearsal strategies to memorise long strings of subjective information. Memories recalled by hyperthymestic individuals tend to be personal, autobiographical accounts of both significant and mundane events in their lives. This extensive and highly unusual memory does not derive from the use of mnemonic strategies; it is encoded involuntarily and retrieved automatically. Despite being able to remember the day of the week on which a particular date fell, hyperthymestics are not calendrical calculators like some people with autism or savant syndrome. Rather, hyperthymestic recall tends to be constrained to a person’s lifetime and is believed to be an unconscious process.
Although hyperthymestics are not autistic, and likewise savants do not memorise autobiographical information, there are certain similarities between the two conditions. Like autistic savants, individuals with hyperthymesia have an unusual and obsessive interest in dates. Russian psychologist Aleksandr Luria documented the famous case of mnemonist Solomon Shereshevskii, who was quite different from the first documented hyperthymestic known as AJ in that he could memorise virtually unlimited amounts of information deliberately, while AJ could not – she could only remember autobiographical information (and events she had personally seen on the news or read about). In fact, she was not very good at memorising anything at all, according to the study published in ‘’Neurocase’’. Hyperthymestic individuals appear to have poorer than average memory for arbitrary information. Another striking parallel drawn between the two cases was that Shereshevskii exemplified an interesting case of synaesthesia and it has been suggested that superior autobiographical memory is intimately tied to time-space synaesthesia.
By 2006 twenty cases of hyperthymesia had been confirmed, the most famous of these being AJ (who later revealed her identity as school administrator Jill Price). Her case was originally reported by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James McGaugh, and is credited as being the first case of hyperthymesia. AJ can apparently recall every day of her life from when she was 14 years old: "Starting on February 5th, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday."
In March 2009 Price was interviewed for an article in Wired magazine by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University. Price's brain had been subject to a brain scan and the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex had been reportedly normal. Marcus claimed, however, that her brain resembled "those of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder" and suggested that her remarkable memory might be "the byproduct of obsession", claiming also that "the memory woman clings tightly to her past". Price has since reacted angrily to such claims and McGaugh has also expressed skepticism for such an explanation. In September 2012 Price gave her first interview in over a year for the UK's Channel 4 documentary The Boy Who Can't Forget and provided an insight into just how difficult life can be for people who have this ability.
As the condition has become better known, more and more people claiming to have hyperthymestic abilities have emerged. In the aftermath of the 2006 Neurocase publication alone, more than 200 people contacted McGaugh; however only a handful of cases were determined to be actual cases of hyperthymesia. The second verified case was Brad Williams, the third was Rick Baron, and in 2009 Bob Petrella became the fourth person diagnosed with hyperthymestic syndrome. All three men are left-handed.
On December 19, 2010, actress Marilu Henner was featured on the US television program 60 Minutes for her superior autobiographical memory ability. Henner claimed she could remember almost every day of her life since she was 11 years old. The show was initially pitched as a story featuring hyperthymestic violinist Louise Owen, but the reporter Lesley Stahl volunteered her friend Henner as having a similar ability.
In June 2012 the case of "HK" was reported, a blind 20-year old man who could clearly recall every day of his life since the age of about 11. He told researchers that his memories are rich in sensory and emotional details, regardless of whether they are from years ago or yesterday. Ninety percent of his memories are in the first person, compared with an average of 66 percent in the general population. Brandon Ally and his team, at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, conducted a series of tests with the subject, including a brain scan which was compared with 30 age-matched controls. His brain was smaller than average (probably a result of his premature birth at 27 weeks). His right amygdala, however, was 20 percent larger and there was enhanced functional connectivity between the right amygdala and hippocampus and in other regions.
In September 2012 UK's Channel 4 screened the documentary The Boy Who Can't Forget, which examined the memory of 20 year-old Aurelien Hayman from Cardiff, a student at Durham University, who remembers practically every day of his life from the age of 10. Hayman is the first British person to be identified as possessing this ability, and he views it positively. When Hayman’s brain was scanned by a team led by Professor Giuliana Mazzoni at the University of Hull, whilst he was prompted to remember a series of dates, a series of "visual areas" of the brain were activated, with much greater speed than would be expected in normal brain function. Potential problems with total recall were illustrated. The documentary also featured 62 year-old TV producer Bob Petrella whose memory has allowed him to catalogue the events from his "favourite days" over many years into an extensive scrapbook.
A 25-year-old Global Marketing Specialist from Turkey was the last case encountered. M.A.‘s extraordinary ability to remember almost everything that she had experienced shocked the scientists. She put her experience of Hyperthymesia in these words: “I did not realize this until a co-worker of mine told me that I remember everything in details and he was suspicious if it was a psychological disorder. When I went to see an expert about my case, this expert told me that it was highly possible that Hyperthymesia was my case. He also mentioned that that was nothing to worry about, which was a big relief.”
Parker and colleagues used a variety of standardised neuropsychological tests in their diagnosis of AJ’s hyperthymesia. These included tests of memory, lateralisation, executive functions, language, calculations, IQ, visual-spatial and visual-motor functions. They also devised novel tests to examine the extent of her memory abilities. These mostly consisted of questions pertaining to specific dates and events in history. Some of her personal recollections were verified with diary entries as well as by her mother.
More recently, neuroscientist David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine developed on free online test for hyperthymesia. Participants first give their year of birth, and then are challenged to match dates to 60 famous events that happened between the time they were five years old and the present day. To qualify as potentially hyperthymestic, participants must achieve a score at least three standard deviations above the average. To prevent people from searching for answers online during the test, reaction time for each question is measured; answers must be chosen within 11 seconds to qualify for consideration.
Hyperthymestic abilities can have a detrimental effect on cognitive capacity. The constant, irrepressible stream of memories has caused significant disruption to AJ’s life. She described her recollection as "non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting" and as "a burden". Like all hyperthymestics, AJ is prone to getting lost in remembering. This can make it difficult to attend to the present or future as she is permanently living in the past.
Surprisingly, AJ displays considerable difficulty in memorising allocentric information. "Her autobiographical memory, while incredible, is also selective and even ordinary in some respects," – McGaugh. This was demonstrated by AJ's poor performance on standardised memory tests. At school, AJ was an average student, clearly unable to apply her exceptional memory to her studies. Similar patterns have been observed in other cases of hyperthymesia.
Due to the scarcity of hyperthymestic individuals, relatively little is known about the processes governing this superior memory ability.
It has been proposed that the information encoded by hyperthymestics is semantic and therefore semantic cues are used in retrieval. Once cued, the memory is retrieved as episodic and follows a pattern similar to that of a spreading activation model. This is particularly evident in AJ’s case. She describes how one memory triggers another, which in turn triggers another and how she is powerless to stop it: "It's like a split screen; I'll be talking to someone and seeing something else.” This theory serves to explain why hyperthymestics have both a sense of ‘knowing’ (semantic memory) and ‘remembering’ (episodic memory) during recollection. Hence, hyperthymesia is essentially superior semantic autobiographical memory.
Individuals with hyperthymesia often display OCD tendencies. AJ reports that from a young age, she would become upset when order in her environment was disturbed. She kept a daily diary for 32 years as a way of maintaining control over her environment. Hoarding behaviour is also common, both AJ and Williams collect TV guides. This obsessive-compulsive nature may be facilitating consolidation of memories and could explain the unconscious use of dates as organised mnemonic devices.
The theory that hyperthymestic abilities could be attributed to a failure in our cognitive capacity to forget superfluous information has been suggested by numerous researchers. Parker et al. report on how executive difficulties, such as lack of inhibition, may explain the constant and unstoppable memory retrieval. “It is, however, quite possible that there is no causal relationship and that the overall parallels between her memory and her neuropsychological weaknesses are simply correlative.”
An MRI study conducted on AJ provides a solid argument as to the neurological foundation of her superior memory. Both the temporal lobe and the caudate nucleus were found to be enlarged. The hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe, is involved in the encoding of declarative memory (memory for facts and events), while the temporal cortex is involved in the storage of such memory. The caudate nucleus is primarily associated with procedural memory, in particular habit formation, and is therefore intrinsically linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Parker and colleagues speculated that a defective frontostriatal circuit could be responsible for the observed executive function deficits in hyperthymesia. This circuit plays a crucial role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD, OCD and ADHD. Given the parallels in some aspects of behaviour, it is possible that AJ’s hyperthymestic abilities stem from atypical neurodevelopment.
This evidence provides significant support both for the extraordinary memory abilities and the behaviours of hyperthymestics. Scientists now need to ascertain if and how these brain areas are connected in order to establish a coherent neurological model for superior autobiographical memory. "This may be a key piece of the puzzle as to how memory works”
The debate as to whether hyperthymestic syndrome can be considered a distinct form of memory is ongoing.
K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University does not believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the skills of AJ and Williams need additional explanation: "Our work has pretty much concluded that differences in memory don't seem to be the result of innate differences, but more the kinds of skills that are developed."
McGaugh rejects the idea that hyperthymestic syndrome can be explained away so easily; he argues that there is no explanation as to how they are able to memorise so much: "You'd have to assume that every day they rehearse it... The probability of these explanations dwindles as you look at the evidence."
Cases of hyperthymesia have forced many people to re-evaluate what is meant by "healthy" memory: "it isn't just about retaining the significant stuff. Far more important is being able to forget the rest."
There is also significant debate over the limits of our memory capacity. Some are of the view that the brain contains so many potential synaptic connections that, in theory at least, there is no practical limit to the number of long-term memories that the brain can store. In 1961, Wilder Penfield reported that specific stimulation of the temporal lobes resulted in vivid recollection of memories. He concluded that our brains were making "continuous, effortless, video-like recordings" of our experiences, but that these records are not consciously accessible to us.
Appearance in fiction
- Sheldon Cooper from the TV show The Big Bang Theory remembers everything from the day his mother stopped breastfeeding him. He recalls it was "a drizzly Tuesday".
- Jorge Luis Borges's short fiction "Funes the Memorious" tells the story of an Uruguayan peasant who cannot forget a single thing he sees or hears.
- In the CBS television series Unforgettable, the main character Carrie Wells, played by Poppy Montgomery, possesses superior memory capabilities that she uses to help solve crimes under investigation by the police. Her abilities are attributed to her having hyperthymesia.
- In the 12th episode of season 7 (You Must Remember This) of House, Dr. House's patient is a waitress who has hyperthymesia.
- On they Disney Channel series A.N.T. Farm the character Olive is able to remember every day of her life and everything she has ever heard seen or read, which is relatable to hyperthymesia.
- Significant parts of the plot of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett depend on the hyperthymestic, eidetic memory of the monk Brutha. He remembers every moment of his life in perfect detail, down to the precise location and timing of individual footsteps. He cannot read, but he can nevertheless make perfect reproductions of documents from memory because he remembers the shapes of the letters. When he witnesses a disreputable action and is ordered to forget it, he does not understand the order as he has no concept of "forgetting". When asked what is the first thing that he can remember, he replies "There was a bright light, and then someone hit me.
- Mike Ross, (played by Patrick J. Adams) in the television series Suits, has a flawless memory, and remembers everything he has read or seen with perfect detail, using this to bolster his career, he has a hyperthymistic, eidetic memory.
- Disciple Manning, the main character in R. Scott Bakker's novel Disciple Of The Dog, also suffers from hyperthymestic syndrome which he characterizes as "simply irritable bowel syndrome of the head: where my dad can't dump his dumps properly, me, I can't dump my memories properly".
- In the Mass Effect science-fiction video games, an assassin named Thane Krios appears. He, along with every other member of the alien race called drell, has near perfect recollection of everything that has ever happened in their life. This characteristic was developed in response to a hostile desert homeworld where the location of important resources like water or oases were scattered over enormous distances, and so, not knowing the specific location could mean death.
- Margaret Peterson Haddix's Young Adult novel Escape From Memory features a land where people are trained from childhood to be hyperthymesic.
- In the movie "Limitless", the lead-character, Edward Morra, takes a drug which causes him to call back every memory he has ever had, which is similar to Hyperthymesia.
- The Extraordinary Memory Test from David Eagleman's laboratory
- Daniel McCartney
- Eidetic memory
- Funes the Memorious, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges
- Savant syndrome
- Solomon Shereshevskii
- Harkin, Rebecca. "What Is Hyperthymesia?". Wise Geek. Conjecture Corporation. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
- Parker ES, Cahill L, McGaugh JL (February 2006). "A case of unusual autobiographical remembering.". Neurocase 12 (1): 35–49. doi:10.1080/13554790500473680. PMID 16517514.
- LePort, A., Mattfeld, A., Dickinson-Anson, H., Fallon, J., Stark, C., Kruggel, F., Cahill, L., and McGaugh, J. (2012). "Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)". Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 98 (1). doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2012.05.002. PMID 22652113.
- Finkelstein, Shari. "Understanding the gift of endless memory". 60 Minutes. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
- Treffert, Darold. "Hyperthymestic Syndrome: Extraordinary Memory for Daily Life Events. Do we all possess a continuous tape of our lives?". Wisconsin Medical Society. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
- Bruner, Jerome S (1987). The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-57622-5.
- Yaro, Caroline; Ward, J (17). "Searching for Shereshevskii: What is superior about the memory of synaesthetes?". The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 60 (5): 681–695. doi:10.1080/17470210600785208.
- Simner, Julia; Mayo, N & Spiller, M-J (21). "A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits". Cortex 45: 1246–1260.
- "Woman With Perfect Memory Baffles Scientists". ABC News. March 20, 2006.
- "Woman's Long-Term Memory Astonishes Scientists". National Public Radio. April 20, 2006. (Part 2 includes "AJ" in her own words.)
- "The man who remembers every moment of his life". MiD DAY. March 25, 2009.
- Berg, Tom. "Remembering every day of your life". The Orange County Register. April 25, 2008. Page 2
- Shafy, Samiha. "An Infinite Loop in the Brain". The Science of Memory. Spiegel Online. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
- "Total Recall: The Woman Who Can't Forget" at wired.com
- The Boy Who Can't Forget UK, channel4.com, first broadcast 25 September 2012
- "Local "Memory Man" appears on Good Morning America". WXOW. January 15, 2008.
- Associated Press. "Amazing memory man never forgets". CNN. Archived from the original on 2008-02-26. Retrieved 2008-02-23.
- David S. Martin (May 16, 2008). "Man's rare ability may unlock secret of memory". CNN. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
- Elias, Marilyn. "Another person with super-memory skills comes forward". USA Today. May 13, 2008
- Thompson, Victoria (March 16, 2009). "He Never Forgets: Meet the Super-Memory Man". ABC News. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
- C., Tania. "Scientists Discover Hyperthymesia-The Perfect Memory". FinestDaily.
- Dionne, Zach. "'Taxi' Actress Marilu Henner Has Super-Rare Autobiographical Memory Ability". Popeater. December 20, 2010
- Ally, B., Hussey, E., and Donahue, M. (2012), "A case of hyperthymesia: rethinking the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory", Neurocase, 1-16 DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2011.654225
- Jarrett, Christian. "Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail". British Psychological Society. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
- "TV review: The Boy Who Can't Forget; The Paradise" at guardian.co.uk
- "Memory man: Aurelien Hayman's hyperthymesia explained" at bbc.co.uk
- "The Boy Who Can’t Forget: Aurelien Heyman, Jill Price and Bob Petrella demonstrate their marvellous memories in this Channel 4 documentary" at primetime.unrealitytv.co.uk
- MyLifeMemory.info, a free online test for hyperthymesia. Retrieved Jan 4, 2013.
- Ellis Nut, Amy. "Picturing the Past: How Science is Mapping Memory (Part 2)". New Jersey On-Line. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
- Elias, Marilyn. "MRIs reveal possible source of woman's super-memory". USA Today. January 28, 2009
- Svoboda, Eva; McKinnon, MC & Levine, B (27). "The functional neuroanatomy of autobiographical memory: A meta-analysis". Neuropsychologia 44 (12): 2189–2208.
- Marshall, Jessica. "Forgetfulness is Key to a Healthy Mind". New Scientist. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
- Penfield, Wilder (1952). "Memory Mechanisms". AMA Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 67: 178–198.