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THE HISTORY OF MEMORY RESEARCH

THE HISTORY OF MEMORY RESEARCH

February 19, 2020

Memory recall in humans, as well as animals, is a very fascinating topic, which has intrigued everyone for millennia. It’s main complexity is just how multilayered memory is, and how different kinds of recall become more (or less) apparent during different moments of one’s life. There are many different kinds of memory recall that we all possess, and there are many of which we understand very little about.

Memory recall is highly individual to everyone, and we all have unusual aspects of our own way of remembering things. Over tens of thousands of years human memory has essentially not changed. However the current availability of published media and social media has seemingly brought many new kinds of memory recall to the world. More and more of us now have an opportunity, and are more willing to share our unique qualities with a larger number of people. From there, when there are more people sharing qualities which are relatable to a group of others, researchers begin to conduct scientific studies.

In the year 2006 a newly discovered kind of memory was brought to our attention which  is called HSAM (or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). Everyone of us has autobiographical memories, and they’re the recollections of our personal experiences from our lifetime, which are the kind that we would include in an autobiography written by ourselves. The widespread understanding of Long Term Memory consists largely of autobiographical memories.

It’s been discovered that some people have an inability to discard the vast majority of their autobiographical memories, and people with HSAM can therefore recall and retrieve all of the experiences from their past with more ease than usual. Research of HSAM began in the year 2000 when a woman named Jill Price approached memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) claiming to have an unusual memory. After six years of thorough tests and brain scans Price was diagnosed with HSAM in 2006. Fourteen years later over 60 more people (including myself) have also been tested and diagnosed with HSAM by the McGaugh/Stark lab at the UCI. Yet memory research studies like these are not at all unique to the 21st century. A century ago there was also a study involving a person with an unusually strong memory recall.

In the 1920s there was a man in Russia named Solomon Shereshevsky who was brought to a neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria. Shereshevsky worked as a journalist, and his boss noticed that he had an exceptional skill for remembering every detail of what interviewees gave him. His skill was so advanced that he would never take down notes during his interviews, although his boss would always tell him off for not doing his job properly. But even so, Shereshevsky would still include all of the information he heard into his articles, and he was therefore very impressed with his employee. This was presented to Alexander Luria.

Luria studied Solomon Shereshevsky’s memory much like people with unusual kinds of memory (including HSAM) are being studied now in the 21st century. Of course technology was more limited for tests such as MRIs and DNA analysis. Though Shereshevsky was studied extensively from being given the same kind of memory puzzles  that us participants are being given in HSAM research tests today. There was even a book published at the time about his case (The Mind of a Mnemonist).

 Shereshevsky performed exceptionally well with recalling lists of information he was presented with. It was discovered that he could recite information with ease because he associated words and numbers with unrelated images from his senses. This man a century ago was found to have synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is often termed “union of the senses” and enables a person to experience unrelated sensory experiences to words, colours, sounds, numbers etc. that they come across. Science is currently studying synaesthesia as if it is a newly discovered condition.

So it’s true that we’re hearing of more unusual kinds of memory in the modern age. However we must never dismiss newly discovered conditions (including HSAM) as terms merely invented for media attention and social classification. Of course there is always the odd case or two where that happens. Yet when we hear and read about unusual conditions we must remind ourselves that they have always been studied and considered by science. The only difference is that it’s no longer just a narrow selection of society who have an opportunity to be considered and studied. Thanks to the internet we’re now able to hear from 1000% more of the general population. Therefore are wider variety of conditions are being discovered. As more decades pass this will hopefully increase even further.



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