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Hyperthymesia: A Priceless Gift or a Damning Curse ?

Charles is currently a medical student at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. Nigeria. He is an avid reader and passionate writer.

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For many it would be bliss to be able to remember the very mundane and minutest of details of our everyday life (such as remembering what you ate on the morning of your 15th birthday or any other ordinary day , the weather that afternoon, the color and type of cloth you wore that evening) and for the few others who have/had this ability this seeming gift comes at a dear price.

What then does Hyperthymesia entail?

“Hyper” as one can imply refers to when a quantity is in excess while “thymesis” is derived from a greek word that means to remember and if you fix them together this would mean excess remembering, right? Right.

Only about 61 people living with this condition as of 2021 had been recorded among which are Jill Price, Nimi Veiseh, Marilu Henner, and others.

American neurobiologist Elizabeth Parker and some others discovered a recurring character amongst people with this condition viz:

i)They spend a lot of time thinking/reminiscing about their past coupled with

ii)Having an uncanny ability to recall vivid details of their autobiographical past and public events that holds personal significance to them.

Marilu Henner

Marilu Henner


Distinction Of Memories

Hyperthymesia differs from other types of exceptional memory by being near-completely autobiographical. As was the case with Jill Price in which she was able to recall a lot of her personal life but on one occasion she was asked to close her eyes and tell the color of the dresses her interviewers wore,she couldn’t. By this, she showed evidently a poor eidetic memory.

Although, one phenomenon seems common to most forms of exceptional memory i.e synesthesia ( a phenomenon in which the stimulation of one cognitive pathway evokes involuntarily another cognitive pathway). For example, there are individuals that encode/perceive numbers as colors (grapheme-colour synesthesia) and by so doing it is relatively easy to recall this information simply because of its relation to the other. As in the case of hyperthymestics, they involuntarily tend to link their experiences/ordeals with dates, so that at the mere mention of these dates; they remember the events that must have transpired almost effortlessly.

Mnemonists on the other hand, one of which was the foremost Russian Solomon Shereshevsky, was able to memorise a great deal of arbitrary information deliberately with the use of mnemonics whereas hyperthymestics do not derive this ability from the use of mnemonics as their autobiographical memory is encoded involuntarily and retrieved automatically.

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Causes

Biological cause: When neuro scientists scanned Jill Price’s head using an MRI( Magnetic Resonance Imaging); they discovered an abnormal increase in the size of the amygdala(a portion of the medial temporal lobe responsible for processing and storage of memories and also linked to emotional and behavioral functions).


Psychological cause: Psychologists have so far, linked the increased size of the amygdala as a characteristic of a psychological disorder known as OCD(Obsessive –Compulsive disorder),this was said to explain that the reason they remember these memories with so much vividity was because they fantasized(obsessed) and compelled(compulsion) to revisit them from time to time.

Diagnosis

Though there hasn’t been any formal test to ascertain whether or not an individual is hyperthymestic. There was however an online test developed by David Eagleman ,a neuroscientist at the university of Stanford that could tell if an individual was potentially hyperthymestic. The individual would have to input their date of birth and be challenged to match 60 famous events to their respective dates from the age of five and when the reaction time was measured and cumulated to having a score above the average standard deviation; then the individuals is recognized as being potentially hyperthymestic.


David Eagleman

David Eagleman

Difficulties

One would think that having an exceptional memory such as hyperthymesia would gift you the pleasure of reliving all those fond memories of one’s childhood all at the comfort of existence in the present. But there are some gifts such as this, that come at a price as was the case with Jill Price; who was known to have broken-down several times due to the uncontrollable recollection of events that had happened during her childhood such as her remembering the date and time when her mom called her “fat” ,when she was gaining weight as a child, recalling like a movie the psychological torment her bullies back in grade school did her. Most of which an average memory would have forgotten. Time they say, heals all wounds but in her case it was arguably untrue.

She also wasn’t able to apply her exceptional memory to her academics as she was known to have had difficulty in memorizing allocentric information, and also performed averagely in standard memory tests. Although, their memory is exceptional it is also selective of the information it commits to memory. Some hyperthymestics are also known to struggle with interpersonal relationship because they literally find it hard to “forgive & forget” when offended.



Conclusion

In the real sense hyperthymesia has given neuro-scientists a shot to understanding Alzheimer’s disease and prospectively finding monumental cure to the various forms of dementia .My standpoint is not to say in totality that hyperthymesia is a disadvantaged condition but to point out that certain bad memories can be haunting and our tendency to forget as humans may have been necessitated by adaptation.

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