Sunday, August 24, 2008

You just THINK you want to remember everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memory studies

Early in her book Jill Price quotes William James: "If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing." Along with Bart Davis she has written The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science, her memoir of growing into her memory of events—"autobiographical memory"—, which is complete from about age fourteen.

Imagine being able to recall and not only remember but relive your favorite memories...but being subject, most of the time to continuous, unrelenting, automatic, uncontrollable recall of memories good and bad, happy and traumatic, mundane and thrilling and scary and...everything! As Mrs. Price tells us, the way her memory works has mostly been a great problem. It is frequently debilitating.

She is no genius, nor a type of savant, those semi-fortunate folks that can quickly memorize phone books or long lists of numbers. Her memory for such things is no better than most, and perhaps a bit below par. She can't learn languages with extra facility, or remember a long chain of chemical reactions, nor the name list for a large wedding. She remembers the events of the day, every day, plus events reported to her or seen on TV or in a newspaper.

Give her a date, and she'll tell you what happened. Usually it is along the lines of "Hung out with friends [she can name them]; shopped at the Mall but didn't buy the shoes; saw the episode of 'Friends' on TV where [she'll mentions what one character did that was special];..." and perhaps one or two more items. If some world event made the news, she can tell you. Mention the event, and she'll tell you the date and day of the week.

As it happened, when she was first tested by a doctor, the event he chose to ask her about first had been recorded wrong in the book he used. She corrected him, and he had the presence of mind to double-check other references until he had the event and the date right. That was when he began to believe her, and a number of other "hits" convinced him she was just as unusual as she had claimed to be. When she contacted him, she was hoping to find that she isn't all THAT unusual, but studies for the past eight years have shown that she is unique.

I come from a family for whom good memory is not a given. Most descendants of my maternal grandfather's mother suffer senile dementia, probably Alzheimer's Syndrome, after about age seventy at the latest. Some begin to experience impairment from their forties but do not become debilitated until much later. So I find the lines of research that Jill Price's memory has initiated very hopeful. She has apparently not developed the "filter" that people normally have, that selects a few significant memories to retain and numbs or eliminates the rest. Once the normal mode of memory elimination is discovered, perhaps the abnormal modes thereof will be determined and something can be done to help those of us who lose too much, to keep it longer.

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