Forget Superman or Aquaman. There are people in the world with a real-life superpower, those who basically don’t forget anything. It’s called “Hyperthymesia,” which is a condition that leads people to remember an abnormally large number of their life experiences in vivid detail. Only about 60 people in the world have been diagnosed with the condition.
If you could remember every moment of your life, would you want that? Think about being able to summon the mundane in detail, the breakfast of 17 years, three months and two days ago. Every old joy could be there and every pain, remembered perfectly. It would be wonderful as a test taker and terrible when trying to distance yourself from an awkward moment.
I just read a 2018 ABC Science story online about Rebecca Sharrock who has been diagnosed with “highly superior autobiographical memory.” According to the article, Sharrock deals with her insomnia and anxieties with Harry Potter books. She memorized them all, line by line, to go to sleep by them. This is as impressive to me as someone who could defy physics and could levitate. I doubt I could recall a complete sentence after a week passed.
But even memory challenged people like me — my memory is pretty bad — hold an interesting object inside our heads, a time machine. It’s easy to live our lives without pondering the bigger pictures, but our brains are largely a mystery, and are actually time machines. And this is fascinating.
For instance, just think about the fact that much of your experience is stored as sensory photos into flesh, a databank of personal time. There is a landscape of time lived through one vessel that is recorded as a point of view that no one else can see on the same screen, and it’s printed into a bodily organ, a storage device that is distorted by our desires and fears, our previous determinations of cause and effect, and our constant calculations of safety and danger. Our memories are full of personal associations. If you are newly in love, then the actions of that time, even a trip to the grocery store, might be remembered in association with the overall great feeling. If you are in mourning, then an experience like a child’s birthday party will be remembered in connection with the greater emotion.
This time machine takes us on trips, like dreams, pulling us into unchosen narratives. Every interaction involves the brain pulling from the databank for contextual clues.
We think of our brain as being at our command, even though we know this is only partly true. There’s the inner voice that we have that seems like the full self. But that’s only a portion of the self. Much of what we hold inside happens outside the linear voice. Obviously, our baseline functions like breathing and heartbeat are in that realm. But our thinking lives are largely involuntary, too. For instance, when I’ve had significant bad things in my life, I sometimes wake and feel the surge of anxiety like a roller coaster in my gut, and then the conscious self will catch up a moment later, with “oh yeah, that happened.” The subconscious has been waiting there to tap the conscious self on the shoulder.
I’m thinking about memory a lot these days. My hair is turning white. I’m feeling less sharp in terms of summoning memories. Names often escape me. It’s much more common for someone to say to me, “wait, you don’t remember that?” than it is for someone to say, “wow, I can’t believe you remember that.”
So, I try to be a mental hoarder these days. If something interests me, I want to put it away in a file. I want to hold on to some thoughts that will surely be forgotten for good unless I take some action. For instance, I have a file labeled as “Stuff” on my laptop. I just throw mental scraps in there. Maybe it’s a personal thought. Maybe it’s a quote, or link to some story, or some observation in the day.
A minute ago, I opened one of those files with just one saved sentence, “Kindness is the only non delusional response to human suffering.” Those aren’t my words, and I’m not sure who said that. I didn’t write down an attribution. But I thought enough of the sentence to keep it, and now, yeah, I agree with that sentiment. I can ponder that statement for a moment.
Our house can seem full of clutter, and this makes me crazy at times. A brain can be cluttered too, so I don’t think it’s a bad idea to give it an outside storage unit, like a “Stuff” file. Maybe you already do something like that.
Or maybe you have one of those super computer memories like the human Kindle holding all Harry Potter novels.
So would you choose flying, telepathy with sea creatures or computer-grade memory powers?
For me, I guess it depends on the attire. Flying would be cool, but would I have to wear the suit? If so, that’s a memory we can all avoid.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.