Perfect Recall – A Blessing Or A Curse

When I am talking to people who are interested in improving their memory, the conversation usually goes something along these lines:

Them:  Michael I understand that you teach people how to improve their memory and remember more.  Is that true?

Me:  Yes I do have a little understanding of some Memory Techniques that I, and the thousands of people I have taught have used to remember more.  Why, what do you want to be able to remember?

Them:  Everything!

Me: Everything?

Them: Yes absolutely everything.  I want to remember it all.  And I want to do it naturally so that I don’t have to work at it.  And I want my recall to be perfectly crystal clear.  And I want to be able to do it RIGHT NOW!

Everyone wants to have a perfect memory.  The benefits of being able to recall anything that you have ever experienced in your entire life at will is the “Holy Grail” of memory improvement.

Never have to worry about the embarrassment of forgetting someone’s name, completely eliminate the worries of studying for exams, always remember where you left the car, the keys or even the kids.

Now I am pretty convinced that we ALL have perfect memories but what we don’t necessarily have is perfect recall.  I believe that it is all there, stored in the recesses of our brain, available for us to access at anytime.

And why do I think that?

Well there are many documented cases of people being able to recall in minute detail aspects of their lives from 10, 20, 30 even 60 years ago either under hypnosis or whilst undergoing certain surgical procedures.

For example a patient undergoing a form of brain procedure which required her to be conscious was able to recall an experience from when she was 8 years old – sights, smells, tastes, sounds, feelings as though she was back in the time of the memory.

This happened when the surgeon accidentally stimulated part of her brain that was different to the part being operated on.  Because she was conscious she was able to describe exactly what she was experiencing.

So if it is all there, why can’t we recall it?

Well if I had the answer to that question I would be selling a few more books :-)   I don’t know why that is and I am not sure that the men in the white coats (MITWCs) know either but I do know that there is quite a bit of research being done in the area.

In fact the MITWCs have even coined a term for it – wait for it – “hyperthymestic syndrome” (apparently “thymesis” is greek for remembering).  It couldn’t be called something simple like “total recall syndrome” could it!

Although I suppose that might be confused with the syndrome that has you running around Mars yelling at everyone in your Austrian accent and putting a bullet in Sharon Stone’s forehead.

So it is interesting that the desired state of many of my clients who want to improve their memory is actually a syndrome (which implies that it is something wrong with you).  How ironic that the symptoms of part of our thinking capability working at its optimum is deemed to be “wrong”.

Anyway I digress.  This term “hyperthymestic syndrome” has come from research that has been carried out by scientists at the University of California who were studying a woman known as “AJ”.

She had astonishingly accurate recall of her past and was able to do things like recall the date of Easter for the last 25 years and describe exactly what she was doing on each of those days.

Now when I read this, it reminded me of my recently departed Step-Father’s mother who had a similar recall although in Joan’s case, if you gave her any date from her 4th birthday, she could tell you exactly what the weather was doing on that day.  In my youthful cynicism at the time I thought that was pretty easy because living in the UK if you said “Rain”, you’d be right about 80% of the time!

Interestingly enough, whilst her autobiographical memory  (we are back onto AJ now and not Joan) was practically perfect, AJ did not do that well at school and had trouble organising and categorising the things she was recalling.  The researchers also noted that whilst many would be envious of her ability to recall things in such detail, AJ often found it a burden because her recall could not be controlled.

Oh by the way if you do have a similar ability or know someone who does then do get in touch with the University of California and let them know because AJ is the first to have this diagnosis.

So if you had perfect recall would it be a blessing or a curse?

Let me know what you think.