I have a very unusual memory condition which makes me unable to forget the vast majority of my personal experiences. After two years of tests and brain scans I was diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) in 2013 by neuropsychologists at the University of California, Irvine. Due to the extreme rarity of HSAM me and some other people diagnosed with this condition have been featured in many worldwide media stories in the time since.
So many people have asked me how it feels to be unable to forget almost all of my past, and about whether or not it feels strange. I’ve also been asked many times about the possibility of feeling headaches and fatigue often, due to there being a constant load of recollections in my mind.
In truth it doesn’t feel strange for me to remember in the kind of way that I do, because I’ve never known life any differently. As for headaches and fatigue, I do feel a lot of that. However I’m learning to better control that with therapy. Also, again, I’ve never known life differently. So I’ve long accepted those feelings as just being a part of life. I will discuss the negative experiences I have with HSAM first, as I always like to end on a positive note.
The way I remember is that I re-experience emotions from past events of my life (both involuntarily and voluntarily). These recollections can be major life events or very mundane times of my life, such as clothes I wore or food I ate. I can consciously remember past experiences, though my natural disposition is to involuntarily be inundated with flashbacks, all of the time.
This does affect my ability to get to sleep at night because in the dark and silence my mind buzzes with constant activity. The only way I can get to sleep is by distracting my mind with music and flickering light (from the television or having a movie playing on my iPad). If I don’t have either of those things I will toss and turn until the morning. In addition to tossing and turning I will also feel distracting snippets of past emotions such as depression and excitement.
Reliving negative times of my life clearly is troubling on its own. Yet my unsettled feelings will go further than that. I have to admit that I’m very attached to my past, and the passage of time does scare me and give me feelings of sadness. So when I relive an experience of my life in such precision (while my mind itself stays in the present day) I’m reminded of how fast time passes. My present self will go incredibly deep into the mind of my past self, as I can recall exactly how I felt at different ages.
Very often the merging of my past and present emotions from reliving a particular memory will result in some very difficult feelings. Firstly I do experience confusion. Yet I also experience the fear and sadness that my past self would feel if it knew what has changed from then into my present day life. This can even bring on tears or bouts of clinical depression. I find it very difficult to explain to people why I’m feeling so upset during those times. The reason being that I know that it’s not normal to have those kinds of experiences to such intensity.
In those kinds of situations having HSAM is very challenging. Though it’s not a burden for me all the time. There are times when HSAM is very helpful to me.
In the same way as I relive emotions from negative experiences of my life, I also relive all the feelings I had during good times. These include events like childhood birthdays, Christmases, holidays and all the other happy moments of my life. It’s so nice to get consumed by such nice feelings whenever I’m having a stressful day. Those kinds of flashbacks I call “welcome memories”, and the opposite of which I discussed earlier are “intrusive memories” which feel very much like an unwelcome and negative guest to an occasion which is meant to be positive.
Having HSAM has also given me the privilege to be involved in two memory research studies, on opposite sides of the world. These university labs aren’t just researching HSAM alone. They’re also researching human memory in general and other memory conditions such as Alzheimers.
One may ask at first just how researching HSAM (which is another memory condition) will help find answers for Alzheimers research. But the two studies I’m involved in aren’t solely studying HSAM, and not all participants in these researches have the condition. Their purpose is to study different kinds of memory to see how this anomaly of human life works. This is done by studying and finding out which parts of the brain are affected by any particular kind of memory.
Once this knowledge is discovered it then becomes possible to find cures for memory related diseases. In the past couple of decades many facts about human memory have been discovered from these research studies, and if this research continues as it’s going now, in another two decades we’ll find many more answers that are currently hidden from us.
Comments will be approved before showing up.