Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Owen. Owen Wonders, “How does memory work?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Owen!
When you look back over the best times of your life, what memories come to mind? The birth of a little brother or sister? That Christmas when you got a new bicycle? An amazing family vacation to the Grand Canyon?
Memories are important. We're lucky that our brains can hold so many important memories, so that we can retrieve them and relive special moments from the past.
Not all memories are created equal, though. Have you noticed that? Has anyone ever asked, "Do you remember…?" But no matter how hard you try, you simply can't remember. That's OK. It happens to all of us from time to time.
For an extremely rare set of people, remembering the details of every single day from the past is as easy as remembering what happened yesterday for the rest of us. How can they do this? Scientists call it highly superior autobiographical memory or HSAM.
The study of HSAM began in 2000 when Jill Price (the first person ever to be diagnosed with HSAM) contacted Dr. James McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, for help with her memory struggles.
Rather than always forgetting things, Price had the opposite problem: she couldn't forget things. Whenever someone mentioned a date, she could remember what day of the week it was, where she was, and what she did that day.
While some people might wish that they could go back in time more easily to remember past events, Price found it burdensome to be constantly remembering past events over and over again.
In 2006, after years of research and countless memory tests, McGaugh concluded Price (and a few others he had identified over the years) had a condition he originally called hyperthymesia and later changed to HSAM.
HSAM is not like having a photographic memory. People with HSAM are no better than others at remembering faces, phone numbers, or events and details that don't relate to them personally. Their superior ability to recall is limited to details of autobiographical events (events important to them personally).
To date, fewer than 100 people around the world have been diagnosed with HSAM. This makes the condition extremely rare and thus difficult for scientists to study in depth.
MRI tests have revealed some basic structural differences in the brains of those with HSAM. Currently, however, scientists don't know whether these differences are the cause of HSAM or the result of it.
Scientists hope that further testing will help them identify how people with HSAM store and retrieve memories. Understanding HSAM in greater depth may one day lead to more effective treatments for conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and memory loss.