Medical Hyperthymesia or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

  1. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    I was watching a show in which actress Marilu Henner was a guest and she was talking about her memory. It seems she is one of 12 people in the world diagnosed with the uncanny ability to remember everything in her life. I was interested as I used to have an ability to instantly recall conversations with people from years earlier, being able to basically see it playing over like a movie clip. People found it astonishing or highly annoying. I never had it anywhere as strong as the people with this condition, but I think I understand what they're describing. I was 24 when I realized that my memory did not work like other people.

    I thought this kind of "super memory" would be interesting for members to read about. People that have this do have a definite difference in the size of both their temporal lobe and the caudate nucleus.

    This is how my memory works, or worked before I became so sleep deprived, except dates are not the triggers for me, perhaps because I rarely know what the date is. I can also bring up a "clip" of a memory by remembering an event chronologically near the event I wish to recall, then I can "search" the surrounding memories for the one I want. Like flipping through a mental photo album.
  2. jcsd
  3. berkeman

    Staff: Mentor

    Thanks for sharing, Evo. That's very interesting.

    I recently learned that a very bright HAM radio friend of mine has a similar memory to this. I think I'll send him a pointer to this thread and ask if this is how he sees his memories organized...
  4. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    I would love to have any kind of... how do you call it? Memory?
  5. lisab

    lisab 3,188
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member


    The older my memories are, the less able I am to pin them down on a timeline. I remember event A, and event B, but which came first? It annoys me but I suspect it's common.
  6. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    I've never been able to understand the people that ask how to improve their memory, it's a completely foreign concept to me. To me, memory is just "there" and you can't improve it. I now realize that there are different types of memory and that I'm one of the types that don't fall into the typical mnemonic type of memorization. I don't have phenomenal memory, but I do have a strange type of memory. In school and for tests, even at work, I would just "scan" the pages, then recall the page where I saw the information and "read" it. Now it makes sense that I excelled in subjects that required a lot of memorization, and not so much subjects like math that require more reasoning.

    I'm curious to hear zooby's take on this and how his memory works. I know my memory has a lot to do with my art, I always said I have no creativity, which is absolutely true, but I can look at something and draw a photo-like copy of it. My older daughter is not only a synesthete, but a very gifted *creative* artist. I should ask her how her memory works.
  7. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    Jokes aside, I have a strange memory as well. I remember initials of peoples names (not remembering the names) and I remember where the information I need is - I know the book, and where on the page it is - like left top, under the picture - but not the page number.
  8. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    That makes sense, if you can recall the page, or part of the page, you don't need the page number. I think it's best that your mind excludes unnecessary information when you want to recall specific information. It sounds like people with hyperthymesia don't have this control over their memory.
  9. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    When I was at uni, I knew somebody reading History who had similar memory abilities (very useful for his degree subject, of course). We once challenged him to memorize the complete results of a UK general election, i.e the names, parties, number of votes, and percentage swings for all candidates in every constituency (of the order of 10,000 - 20,000 items of data in total). It took him about 30 minutes to read the data. The agreed penalty for wrong answers to randomly chosen questions was buying a round of drinks, but he never had to pay up, though the experiment ended after a few months when we lost the printed copy of the data (this predates the internet).
  10. The kind of memory you describe yourself having is just like the famous autistic woman, Temple Grandin. She can remember absolutely anything she has personally experienced because it is recorded in her brain as a sort of movie that she can play back at will and watch.

    She was able to learn drafting by watching a draftsman work for a few hours. She "recorded" the whole thing, and played it back for herself as many times as she needed. Oliver Sacks found he had to wait a lot when he was interviewing her. She often had to pause and watch a "movie" to be able to answer a question about herself for him. The problem with the movies is that they came in segments of a certain length. She had to watch the whole segment where the information was stored; she couldn't just jump in at the relevant part. So, at the same time it's miraculously exact, it's also cumbersome. At least in her case.

    My own visual memory is nothing at all like this. If I try to call up any visual image, moving or static, it's extremely vague. When I draw I have to look back at the reference constantly to refresh my memory. I hear tales of artists who can memorize an image and "project" it onto the paper and practically trace it, but that's not me at all. I draw almost by trial and error: make a mark and then ask myself why it does or doesn't look like the reference, then take a stab at correcting the divergent properties. I have no ability to project anything from my mind onto the paper at all.

    Anyway, I didn't realize till you posted this that anyone outside of autistic people had this sort of cinematic memory. I'm going to start asking around and see if any of the people I know report their memory being like watching a movie.
  11. I like Serena

    I like Serena 6,183
    Homework Helper

    As I understand it, this type of memory is not typical for autistic people.
    It's just more noticeable, since it makes an autistic person who is being diagnosed anyway special, while "normal" people who have it may not be reported at all.
  12. I'm not sure anyone can determine how typical it is at this point. There are very few autistic people as articulate as Temple Grandin, few with her insight into the differences between autistic people and neurotypicals. (She is exceptional because she has figured out what needs to be explained about being autistic.)

    It's assumed autistic calculators are probably not using this kind of memory, but you can see from Evo's post, how she used this kind of memory to pass tests, that they could be.

    If you read Oliver Sacks', "The Twins" ( about autistic twin brothers with savant abilities) you find they were both calculators and had astonishing autobiographical recall, but they were unable to explain how either thing was processed. All they could say was, "We see it."

    It's very difficult to interview autistic people about their internal experiences. In their "self-ism" (autism) they don't get the idea that other people have completely distinct minds that could be very different than their own.

    As for the prevalence of this kind of memory in non-autistic people, you're right, that's also up in the air at this point. People assume everyone else' experiences are the same. If they find out they are different they often might keep it to themselves so as not to appear freakish. A lot of people with synesthesia never tell anyone else once they realize everyone doesn't have it.
  13. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    On top of this it is difficult to compare two autistic cases what with autism being a whole category of conditions.

    Thanks for the link Evo!
  14. fuzzyfelt

    fuzzyfelt 652
    Gold Member

    It would be interesting to have an explanation of how other memories compare with this.
  15. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    That's something that's bugging me, if people don't see memories play back, how exactly do they recall a memory? It seems to me that it has to be some sort of sensory replay, whether it's remembering a smell or physical sensation, audio or visual. When you remember music, you remember the sounds playing, right? So, how can any memory not be a "replay", I know it's common that when you hear a song you can also see the "video" of what was happening while you were listening. Of course, luckily, your mind doesn't simultaneously replay every instance of when you heard the song, your mind somehow selects a default "version". if you want a specific instance, you need to search for it. I would imagine having mutiple memories simultaneously come up could be caused by a malfunction of the brain.

    If people could try to describe how their memory appears to them, that would be very interesting.
  16. I wouldn't object to the term "replay" to describe my memories but only if it's understood that it is of a very low quality compared to the original experience and that, the emphasis seems to be on parsimony: I'm provided with the minimum duration and intensity needed to work with.

    If the original experience can be compared to a scene from a seven-sense movie (the classic 5 plus balance and proprioception) plus emotion, then the memory could be compared to a very grainy black and white still shot; a sort of minimum-data, low budget "prompt".

    All aspects of this "prompt" will be much degraded compared to the original, except the emotion, which, unless I deliberately suppress it, is very often just as vivid as during the original experience. In fact, the whole activity seems to be aimed at recovering that original emotion. It's the compact data-packet I'm searching for. Focusing my attention on that data packet calls up all the salient sub-events. I felt a certain emotion because x happened or Y said a certain thing. Finding the emotional packet leads to a mapping out of the facts, or at least the salient events.

    It seems that everything that happens is tagged and stored by some sort of emotional classification. The bolder the emotional tag, the more important the event seems.
  17. fuzzyfelt

    fuzzyfelt 652
    Gold Member


    Anecdotally, because I’m not able to look it up right now, Condivi or Vasari were amongst those who spoke of Michelangelo’s remarkable visual memory, things like being able to remember a work of another artist he’d seen only once, and the variation of postures in his repertoire.

    Picasso was noted for competently drawing a bird in flight, from memory, I’m fairly sure, at a young age, maybe 4 or 6 years, which, it was explained, meant that his observational powers were strong enough to replicate a static moment in a moving scene, although birds and other game were his father’s artistic specialty, so he might have seen his Father’s work, perhaps?

    But artists I imagine, generally, have pretty good memories for observation and other experiences, which are expanded with education, to identify works and their contexts, like dates and music.

    (Just realised how unsure of my own memory, without looking these things up, this sounds!:) )
  18. lisab

    lisab 3,188
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Extremely close to my own experience of memory.

    Emotion plays a big role in recall. For example, a few years ago I went through a divorce, and had the same emotions that I had as a kid, when my parents divorced. It brought me right back to when I was 9 or 10. I was remembering details of that time in my life that I had not thought about for decades - details that had nothing to do with my parents' divorce.

    So for me, emotions will trigger vivid memories the same way smells do.
  19. drizzle

    drizzle 478
    Gold Member

    I'm not even sure if I'm describing my 'memory type' well or not, but it seems as if my brain is trying to categorize the things I need to remember and put them together as if it's making its own, crossword, if I may say. The tough part is that the 'characters' are vanished [with time] leaving empty spaces behind. But the shap of the crossword is remained, which by itself helps to recall what was there, yet it's still tough... Sigh.

    Btw, Interesting topic Evo, thanks for sharing.
  20. fuzzyfelt

    fuzzyfelt 652
    Gold Member

    I’d meant I don’t have my books, but I’ve found some support for what I wrote-

    "Michelangelo has a most retentive memory, such that though he has painted thousands of figures, he has not made two alike or in the same pose. Indeed, I have heard him say that he never draws a line without recalling whether he has previously drawn it before, and if so he will erase it. His imaginative capacity is strong, which contributes to his dissatisfaction with his finished works, as he states they do not meet the original idea fashioned in his mind." Life of Michelangelo, Ascanio Condivi. "

    (Also, the examination of cadavers happened here at the left- )

    And this has shows a drawing of pigeons by Picasso at an early age, and a book I do have said he was surrounded by his little sisters and cousins in his early childhood, who demanded he draw birds and horses on the spot, as well as being a noted child prodigy.

    Nice allegory, I like the idea of downwards distance in time and (a)cross references.
  21. I am just a Nobody passing through but how I perceive the world in being an autistic is not to say the least strange. Firstly I am capable of storing information in a unique way with a unique way of recalling it. Ok.

    My brain stores information firstly as levels, with each level drop down the information becomes more and more dense / advanced. Now the memories stored are not simply visual or basic. When I recall memories it stores them like a net / network. When I access 1 memory say the idea of an atom the atom calls back sub ideas such as weight,size,mass electron configuration and so on. Not only while I am doing this am I recalling a quantum field image of "the electron cloud but to make it simpler on my mind and so I don't go completely insane" I keep it to the "shell theory" with seeing the electrons in their energy shells / levels. Now going deeper into the levels of information I can see animations which are "constructed from information I find and learn" Such as neutrons impacting a uranium 238 atom causing it to perform a fission process. I can also see the shells in animation. Whats even more screwy is I can project whats in my mind into my eyes and see it in the real world if that makes any sort of sense. So in short.

    1. I have an image memory
    2. Cinematic memory (My mum can definitely recall this I can watch entire movies in my head through pure recall) If I choose to.
    3. I can link sound to my image / Cinematic memory
    And I can add word tags
    4. I can also take images in my mind and see them in the real-world from parts to machines to even creatures.
    5. I store information in a leveled state
    6. I am also able to simultaneously put several memories up in my mind and watch them I can still remember Christmas several years behind. And watch it in my mind I can relive all my favorite moments in my life all from my own mind.

    I am now going to leave the forums just thought I should share my story.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2012
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