Hyperthymesia – Those Who Can’t Forget

There are only 20 documented cases of hyperthymesics in the world throughout history, but they tell a chilling story.  Each of the individuals diagnosed had hyper-active memories that recalled every detail no matter how minute of their lives and relived it in a long rollercoaster that haunted their every waking moment.  Not to be confused with those with a photographic memory, hyperthymesics are unable to stop their memories from reliving every moment of their lives.

Researchers from the University of California first recounted the chilling details of a patient they called AJ in 2006.  The details of the case were described in the magazine Neurocase.  Up until that point, memory was generally seen as something patients wanted more of.  After the report, dozens more came out claiming to have the same condition.  However, only 20 cases have been recorded to date.  Most were left handed.

The key difference between the hyperthymesics and those with ordinary memory is the unconscious nature of it.  Those with the disorder suddenly see an ordinary event, such as a date on a calendar and associate every similar event unconsciously.  While most people remember significant events such as their birthday, Christmas, and the day they met an old friend, the hyperthymesic remembers every day, no matter how mundane with the same readiness.

And while it may sound like a great gift, those suffering from the condition have reported it as a curse.  They find themselves constantly distracted as they go through their days, never quite able to live in the moment as they are constantly reliving events over and over that have already occurred – events they spent remembering previous events before them.  It’s a sort of self feeding loop of consciousness that interacts with their every day lives as an impossible anchor to the past, keeping them from moving forward or being productive in their everyday lives.

Studies of those suffering from the condition ranged from simple IQ tests to extensive case studies involving their long histories, their lives before the incidents began occurring, personal journal entries, journals of friends, and even random questions designed to pinpoint if they can recall exactly what was happening on a random date.  In the end, these individuals with super memories eventually find that their talent is more a burden than a gift.

And counter-intuitive to what we may expect, the condition does not apply to the useful memorization of facts and information.  Rather than being able to recall learned information, hyperthymesia leaves the sufferer with a near uninterrupted stream of what is called “autobiographic” memories, meaning memories of experiences.  They find it near impossible to apply their talent to abstract information or learned facts, rendering them with normal or below average memorization abilities.

The illness is extremely rare, but it does offer a strange look in on one of the greatest mysteries of all – the human brain.