In the world today, there are between twelve and twenty-five documented cases of hyperthymesia, also known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). People living with this, are able to remember most of their life events. Their recall can be incredibly detailed including the weather, events, emotions and sensations of any given day. All these memories are mentally catalogued and remembered with astounding accuracy. Vivid sequences of events are almost trapped in time, living forever as they are…unaltered by the usual process of re-remembering an event from the distance of time passing.
Cece Otto delivers a one woman-show inspired by these individuals. We glean a sense a life never forgotten; cascading in all its happiness, joy, shame, disgust, embarrassment and sadness. Most affecting is the reveal that the emotions attached to these memories remain potent (demonstrated by Otto's character revealing they are still furious about something that happened when she was five years old).
It feels like lots of models for increasing a sense of wellbeing (mindfulness, meditation, yoga) encourage one to be present and/or ‘let go’. Difficult or traumatic events hook themselves into our memory and are often re-triggered by other, separate but related circumstances. Revisiting these events to understand them and find a little breathing space, the tiniest bit of relief is already quite an undertaking that can require the sensitive mediation of a mental health professional. So, what happens when you live with hyperthymesia and it is a near impossibility to ever let go of emotional attachments to a memory? How do you come to terms with a difficult moment when it lives on in the sharp focus of the present? Might a person with hyperthymesia relate to lying, fictions or speculation differently, because their own mind has no need for such inventions when telling their own stories?
An infallible memory challenges much of our understanding that recalling memory is predominately a process of recalling ever-changing versions of that memory. Remembering everything as it is-was, crams a brain full. Many people with hyperthymesia stem their barrage of memories by writing them down. Something about visually storing memories by giving form and language must help contain them. Hyper-real by comparison to someone living without hyperthymesia, these memories line up, attentive and unimaginably close. Permanently in order.
- Alexandrina Hemsley
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Total Recall: The People Who Never Forget - Guardian
Meet The Man Who Remembers Everything - NBC News
Remembering Everything: Superpower or Burden? - Plaid Zebra
Memory Is Inherently Fallible And That’s a Good Thing - Technology Review