Understanding Hyperthymesia

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

An illustration of memories going into a brain
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Do you remember what you had for lunch yesterday?  How about what you had for lunch last Tuesday?  How about what you had for lunch, on this date, five years ago?

If you’re like most people, the last of these questions seems exceedingly difficult — if not completely impossible — to answer. However, researchers have found that there are some people who are actually able to answer questions like this: people who have hyperthymesia, which allows them to remember events from their daily lives with a high level of detail and accuracy.

What Is Hyperthymesia?

People with hyperthymesia (also called highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM) are able to remember events from their lives with an incredibly high level of detail. Given a random date, a person who has hyperthymesia will usually be able to tell you what day of the week it was, something they did that day, and whether any famous events happened on that date. In fact, in one study, people with hyperthymesia were able to recall what they had been doing on specific dates even when they were quizzed about days 10 years in the past. Nima Veiseh, who has hyperthymesia, describes his experiences to BBC Future: “My memory is like a library of VHS tapes, walk-throughs of every day of my life from waking to sleeping.”

The ability that people with hyperthymesia have seems to be specific to remembering events from their own lives. People with hyperthymesia generally can’t answer these same types of questions about historical events that happened before they were born, or about memories from earlier in their lives (their extraordinary memory typically starts around their preteen or early teen years).

Additionally, researchers have found that they don’t always do better than average on tests that measure types of memory other than memory of their own lives (such as tests asking them to remember pairs of words given to them in a research study).

Why Do Some People Have Hyperthymesia?

Some research suggests that certain brain regions might be different in people who have hyperthymesia, compared to those who don’t.

However, as researcher James McGaugh tells 60 Minutes, it’s not always clear whether these brain differences are the reason for hyperthymesia: “We have the chicken/egg problem. Do they have these larger brain regions because they have exercised it a lot? Or do they have good memories… because these are larger?”

One study found that people with hyperthymesia might have the tendency to become more absorbed and immersed in daily experiences, and that they tend to have strong imaginations. The study’s author suggests that these tendencies may cause people with hyperthymesia to be more attentive to events in their lives and to revisit these experiences more — both of which could aid in remembering events.  Psychologists have also speculated that hyperthymesia may have links to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and have suggested that people with hyperthymesia might spend more time ruminating about events from their lives.

Are There Downsides?

Hyperthymesia may seem like an extraordinary skill to have — after all, wouldn’t it be great to never forget someone’s birthday or an anniversary?

However, researchers have found that there can also be downsides to hyperthymesia. Because people’s memories are so strong, negative events from the past can affect them greatly.

 As Nicole Donohue, who has hyperthymesia, explains to BBC Future, "You feel [the] same emotions – it is just as raw, just as fresh” when remembering a bad memory." However, as Louise Owen explains to 60 Minutes, her hyperthymesia can also be positive because it encourages her to make the most of each day: “Because I know that I'm gonna remember whatever happens today, it's like, all right, what can I do to make today significant? What can I do that is gonna make today stand out?”

What Can We Learn From Hyperthymesia?

Although we may not all be able to develop the memory abilities of someone with hyperthymesia, there are numerous things we can do to improve our memories, such as exercising, making sure we have adequate sleep, and repeating things we want to remember.

Importantly, the existence of hyperthymesia shows us that the capabilities of human memory are far more extensive than we may have thought.

As McGaugh tells 60 Minutes, the discovery of hyperthymesia may be a “new chapter” in the study of memory.

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Hopper, Elizabeth. "Understanding Hyperthymesia." ThoughtCo, Feb. 8, 2018, thoughtco.com/understanding-hyperthymesia-4158267. Hopper, Elizabeth. (2018, February 8). Understanding Hyperthymesia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-hyperthymesia-4158267 Hopper, Elizabeth. "Understanding Hyperthymesia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-hyperthymesia-4158267 (accessed April 22, 2018).