The People Who Never Forget

January 27, 2016

For most of us, memory is a kind of scrapbook, a mess of blurred and faded snapshots of our lives. As much as we would like to cling on to our past, even the most poignant moments can be washed away with time.

Ask Nima Veiseh what he was doing for any day in the past 15 years, however, and he will give you the minutiae of the weather, what he was wearing, or even what side of the train he was sitting on his journey to work.

“My memory is like a library of VHS tapes, walk-throughs of every day of my life from waking to sleeping,” he explains.

Veiseh can even put a date on when those reels started recording: 20 December 2000, when he met his first girlfriend at his best friend’s 16th birthday party. He had always had a good memory, but the thrill of young love seems to have shifted a gear in his mind: from now on, he would start recording his whole life in detail. “I could tell you everything about every day after that.”

Needless to say, people like Veiseh are of great interest to neuroscientists hoping to understand the way the brain records our lives. Quick explanations – such as the possibility that it may be associated with autism – have proven to be unfounded, but a couple of recent papers have finally opened a window on these people’s extraordinary minds. And this research might even suggest ways for us all to relive our past with greater clarity.

‘Highly superior autobiographical memory’ (or HSAM for short), first came to light in the early 2000s, with a young woman named Jill Price. Emailing the neuroscientist and memory researcher Jim McGaugh one day, she claimed that she could recall every day of her life since the age of 12. Could he help explain her experiences?

Intrigued, McGaugh invited her to his lab, and began to test her: he would give her a date and ask her to tell him about the world events on that day. True to her word, she was correct almost every time.

Luckily, Price had also kept a diary throughout that period, allowing the researchers to verify her recollections of personal incidents too; again, she was right the vast majority of the time. After a few years of these sporadic studies, they decided to give her a further, spontaneous test: “Name the dates of every single time you’ve visited our lab”.

In an instant, she reeled off a list of their appointments. “None of us was able to recall this list,” McGaugh and his colleagues noted, but comparing her account with their own records, they found that she was absolutely accurate.

It didn’t take long for magazines and documentary film-makers to cotton on to her “total recall”, and thanks to the subsequent media interest, a few dozen other subjects (including Veiseh) have since come forward and contacted the team at the University of California, Irvine.

During one of his visits, Veiseh’s memory proved to be so accurate that he even found himself correcting the scientists’ test about the exact date that Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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