The perfect memory: does it even exist?
Every now and then, you see news reports of people with incredible memories, able to recall every single thing from their life at a moment’s notice. Initially, it may sound like an incredibly useful ability. No more searching for your car keys that you had in your hand minutes ago, no more desperately stalling for time as you flounder to remember the name of the casual acquaintance who’s just said hello to you, no more taking notes at all. Why would you need to? It’s no wonder it pops up often in pop culture.
Indeed, there are many people who can demonstrate incredible memory prowess, having trained their memories to be as efficient and thorough as possible via useful and approved techniques, in order to compete in memory sports, which are an actual thing. Clearly, for some people at least, there is potential to greatly boost the brain’s ability to store and recall information to well above average levels. Ben Carson even claimed to be able to induce this with a simple bit of surgery (which is utterly wrong)
What’s far more rare are reports of people who do this without even trying, without having to learn and train with an endless series of mnemonics and so on. Like one of Marvel’s mutants discovering a hitherto unexpected super power, some people seem to be born with seemingly-infallible memories. There are a number of terms that are used to describe such abilities. Photographic memory, eidetic memory, Hyperthymesia, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, perfect recall, there are a number of labels to choose from when discussing formidable memory prowess.
These labels, while often used interchangeably, regularly do have different meanings. Eidetic memory refers to the ability to hold detailed memories in your head as if they were an image. Photographic memory refers to the ability to recall any memory and experience in photographic detail, to the point where you could “read” the footnotes in a book you were holding 18 years before. Eidetic memory is believed to occur in a small number of children, while there’s no clear evidence that photographic memory even truly exists.
Hyperthymesia or Highly Superior Autobiographical memory describes people with a formidable ability to accurately recall past experiences and the associated details. When something happened, who was there, what they were wearing, and so on. Such people, while vanishingly rare, do seem to exist, and present an opportunity to considerably expand our understanding of how our brains process memories. However, the idea that someone has a “flawless” memory, is able to remember everything from any aspect of their lives in great and accurate detail, is far from confirmed by available scientific evidence.
Part of this is due to the miniscule number of people who end up demonstrating such natural memory prowess. It’s hard to study an ability if you can’t get access to anyone who has it. Not that there hasn’t been some interesting findings based on the few super-memories we have. For instance, one scanning study on such a person revealed signs of an abnormally large amygdala which was better connected to the hippocampus. The amygdala is known to have a prominent role in the processing of the emotional element of memories, and emotional memories are easier to recall. It’s easy to see how this could lead to a much-improved memory system.
But that’s just one person in one study. It could, however unlikely it seems given the context, be a coincidence. We’d need to run similar scans on other people with similar memory capabilities, but these are few and far between.
There’s also the problem of verifying someone’s memory in terms of accuracy. If you ask them to remember the dates of major events, then yes, you can easily determine the accuracy of that. But many people can remember the dates of significant events (especially for ones like “9/11”). It’s when you ask more personal life events that things get tricky. If someone describes the scene at their 7th birthday and what presents they got, how you are supposed to confirm if they’re remembering it correctly? It’s impossible unless you have video footage of the event itself, and it’s rare for scientists to go around publicly filming children they don’t know. Such behaviour is frowned upon.
This may seem like needless pedantry; why would anyone lie about such a thing? Except it’s not that they lie, it’s that they could be remembering it wrongly and not realise they’re doing it. Unlike computer memory, human memory is highly malleable. The questions we’re asked, the number of times we’ve spoken about it, the company we’re in, how much we’ve had to drink, all of these can alter and adjust our memories, to an often alarming degree.
Sadly, what research there is suggests that those people with incredible memories are just as susceptible to forming “false memories” as anyone else. What good is being able to remember vast amounts of information if you can’t be sure any of it is accurate? The brain has been dealing with “Fake news” far longer than Google has.
False memories seem to arise when the brain has a few crumbs of information and extrapolates a memory from them. Sometimes this can be a pathological problem. But occasionally you can catch hints of it from people with powerful memories. For instance, someone claiming they have vivid memories from when they were 12 days old. The ability to remember this far back would be impressive enough, but when you also consider the fact the visual system is still undeveloped at that age, meaning babies can’t even distinguish between colours until about 4 months old, it’s damn near miraculous.
Maybe there is someone with a “perfect” memory out there. But if there is, we haven’t found them yet. And perhaps we should hope there isn’t. Those with incredible, innate memory prowess describe it as a mixed blessing at best. The increased demand on your thinking capacity, the constant dwelling in the past, the inability to escape painful or damaging experiences? If someone offered you all that, would you accept? Forget about it!
Dean Burnett would like to remind everyone that more in-depth discussion about this can be found in his debut book The Idiot Brain, currently Audible’s most popular nonfiction audiobook. Available in the UK, US and many other countries