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2023-05-10 14:56:27




A handful of people can recall almost every day of their lives in enormous detail – and after years of research, neuroscientists are finally beginning to understand how they do it.


For most of us, memory is a kind of scrapbook, a mess of blurred and faded snapshots of our lives. As much as we would like to cling on to our past, even the most poignant moments can be washed away with time.


Ask Nima Veiseh what he was doing for any day in the past 15 years, however, and he will give you the minutiae of the weather, what he was wearing, or even what side of the train he was sitting on his journey to work.

问一下Nima Veiseh在过去15年间的某一天他正在做什么,然而,他会告诉你当天天气的细节状况,他穿了什么,或是甚至告诉你在去上班的路上他坐在了火车的哪一边。

“My memory is like a library of VHS tapes, walk-throughs of every day of my life from waking to sleeping,” he explains.


Veiseh can even put a date on when those reels started recording: 15 December 2000, when he met his first girlfriend at his best friend’s 16th birthday party. He had always had a good memory, but the thrill of young love seems to have shifted a gear in his mind: from now on, he would start recording his whole life in detail. “I could tell you everything about every day after that.”


Needless to say, people like Veiseh are of great interest to neuroscientists hoping to understand the way the brain records our lives. Quick explanations – such as the possibility that it may be associated with autism – have proven to be unfounded, but a couple of recent papers have finally opened a window on these people’s extraordinary minds. And this research might even suggest ways for us all to relive our past with greater clarity.


Jill Price kept a diary to try to lay her intrusive memories to rest. As a bonus, her notes have now allowed scientists to verify her claims

Jill Price为了安置她不断出现的记忆习惯性记日记。她的记录对于科学家来说是一项福利,可以让他们去辨别她话的真伪。

‘Highly superior autobiographical memory’ (or HSAM for short), first came to light in the early 2000s, with a young woman named Jill Price. Emailing the neuroscientist and memory researcher Jim McGaugh one day, she claimed that she could recall every day of her life since the age of 12. Could he help explain her experiences?

“超级自传体记忆”(英文简称HASM)以一个名叫Jill Price的亲身经历,于2000年代早些时候第一次进入公众视野。一天,她向神经学家及记忆研究员Jim McGaugh发邮件声称她可以记起自12岁之后她生命里每一天的事情。神经学家可以帮忙解释她的亲身经历么?

Intrigued, McGaugh invited her to his lab, and began to test her: he would give her a date and ask her to tell him about the world events on that day. True to her word, she was correct almost every time.


Luckily, Price had also kept a diary throughout that period, allowing the researchers to verify her recollections of personal incidents too; again, she was right the vast majority of the time. After a few years of these sporadic studies, they decided to give her a further, spontaneous test: “Name the dates of every single time you’ve visited our lab”. In an instant, she reeled off a list of their appointments. “None of us was able to recall this list,” McGaugh and his colleagues noted, but comparing her account with their own records, they found that she was absolutely accurate.


It didn’t take long for magazines and documentary film-makers to cotton on to her “total recall”, and thanks to the subsequent media interest, a few dozen other subjects (including Veiseh) have since come forward and contacted the team at the University of California, Irvine. During one of his visits, Veiseh’s memory proved to be so accurate that he even found himself correcting the scientists’ test about the exact date that Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


An extraordinary memory can make it hard to escape the pain of the past


Given these findings, could we all train ourselves to think and remember like Veiseh, Donohue or Bill? Stark is intrigued by the idea. Some of his colleagues are hoping to launch an app that may encourage the active, detailed rehearsal seen in the HSAM subjects, to see if it improves later recollection. There’s already some evidence that this may be effective: one recent study found that simply replaying an event in your head for a few seconds, immediately after it had happened, led to stronger recall a week later.


In reality, Stark compares it to exercise: the idea of a super memory might be nice in theory but harder to put in practice. “Look, many of us could also have fit, athletic bodies. There are great motivations – yet few of us do it.”


The people with HSAM I’ve interviewed would certainly agree that it can be a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it allows you to relive the most transformative and enriching experiences. Veiseh, for instance, is something of a polymath. He travelled a lot in his youth to compete in international taekwondo competitions, but in his spare time, he visited the local art galleries, and perhaps because his love of art is entwined with his identity, the paintings are now lodged deep in his autobiographical memories.


“Imagine being able to remember every painting, on every wall, in every gallery space, between nearly 40 countries,” he says. “That’s a big education in art by itself.” With this encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of art, he has since become a professional painter, under the moniker "Enigma of Newyork". Similarly, his memory may have also aided his other career as a doctoral researcher in design and technology, he thinks, by helping him to absorb a vast body of knowledge.


Donohue, now a history teacher, agrees that it helped during certain parts of her education: “I can definitely remember what I learned on certain days at school. I could imagine what the teacher was saying or what it looked like in the book.”


Not everyone with HSAM has experienced these benefits, however; Price “hated” school and as a result, seemed not to be able to access the information she had learned. Clearly, the information still has to be personally important for it to stick.


Viewing the past in high definition can also make it very difficult to get over pain and regret. “It can be very hard to forget embarrassing moments,” says Donohue. “You feel same emotions – it is just as raw, just as fresh… You can’t turn off that stream of memories, no matter how hard you try.” Veiseh agrees: “It is like having these open wounds – they are just a part of you,” he says.


This means they often have to make a special effort to lay the past to rest; Bill, for instance, often gets painful “flashbacks”, in which unwanted memories intrude into his consciousness, but overall he has chosen to see it as the best way of avoiding repeating the same mistakes. “Some people are absorbed in the past but not open to new memories, but that’s not the case for me. I look forward to the each day and experiencing something new.”


Veiseh even thinks his condition has made him a kinder, more tolerant person. “Some say ‘forgive and forget’, but since forgetting is a luxury I don’t have, I need to learn to genuinely forgive,” he says. “Not just others, but myself as well.”




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