“It’s awful to be a medical exception”: the woman who cannot forget | Psychology

EEvery morning since January 2004, Rebecca Sharrock has crossed out the date on a calendar in her bedroom. Like many people, the 31-year-old uses it to keep track of time, distinguishing the present from those that have gone before.

Unlike many, Sharrock can remember what happened on certain days five, 10 or 15 years ago.

What day was July 21, 2007? On a Saturday, Sharrock can recall when asked. Avid Harry Potter fan, Sharrock recalls her stepfather going to the shops that day to pick up a copy of the all-new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The feeling of a warm breeze evokes positive childhood experiences, much like a vocal workshop Sharrock took in school when she was 13. she recalls. (After we spoke, I check this: George Bush Jr arrived in Australia for his first presidential visit on October 22, 2003.)

Sharrock remembers her mother watching the news that day. “Even if it meant nothing to me, that he came here, this memory [of the vocal group] brings back this whole day,” she says.

Rebecca Sharrock recalls her stepfather buying her a copy of a Harry Potter book on July 21, 2007. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Sharrock, who lives in Brisbane, didn’t realize there was anything unusual in his memory, until – on January 23, 2011 – his parents showed him a TV report about people with an ability amazing at remembering events in their own lives.

The segment featured Professor Craig Stark, a neurobiology and behavior researcher at the University of California, Irvine. Stark’s lab studies a condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), also known as hyperthymesia.

Sharrock is one of approximately 60 known people worldwide with the condition.

In studies, Stark and his colleagues have asked people to recall memories of a particular day a week earlier, and also longer – say a year or a decade ago. People with HSAM remember personal and public events significantly better, as well as the exact days and dates on which they occurred.

“They don’t remember everything,” Stark says. People with HSAM forget things – but compared to people with ordinary episodic memory, “it’s very, very progressive.”

Their extraordinary ability to recall past experiences results from a type of recall known as episodic memory. However, people with HSAM do not do better on standard laboratory memory tests such as rote memory tasks.

HSAM was first recognized as a condition in 2006, after American Jill Price contacted the late Dr. James McGaugh, a Stark collaborator at UCI.

“Whenever I see a date flashing on TV (or anywhere else for that matter), I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it was. “, wrote Price. “Most called it a gift but I call it a burden. I run my whole life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!”

Rebecca Sharrock in a library
People with HSAM also score high on scales for obsessive-compulsive traits, according to an expert. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Many people with HSAM describe a similar tendency to revisit days and test their recall of events, Stark says. “They describe things like, when they’re young, forgetting something and being really traumatized by it, not wanting it to happen again.”

Some structure their days using calendars because they are able to remember the experience of marking a specific date. “I will continue to have a calendar in my bedroom until my last day of life,” Sharrock says. “I’m afraid I don’t know the exact date [otherwise] … Blurry days together – the possibility of that happening just scares me.

For someone with an average memory, perhaps Sharrock’s fear is like the confusing feeling when a friend recalls a shared experience that you have no memory of.

“One of the things we don’t really know about these people is how much of an inherent biological thing it is that makes their memory…better at it,” Stark says.

His lab examined the brains of people with HSAM, but found no major differences in structures important for memory, such as the hippocampus and amygdala.

Rebecca Sharrock in a library
“If I remember something negative, my emotions from that experience will come back,” Sharrock says. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

“We found some things in terms of morphology and in terms of functional conductivity [of the brain] which were actually more consistent with OCD than anything else,” Stark says, adding that people with HSAM also score high on scales for obsessive-compulsive traits.

While having HSAM can be helpful – Sharrock’s mom checks with her to see if purchases are still under warranty – it has its downsides too. “I need to have distractions like noise and light around me to fall asleep,” Sharrock says. “If everything is calm, memories come to mind and it keeps me awake.”

For Sharrock, who also suffers from OCD, anxiety and autism, it makes bad memories hard to deal with. “If I remember anything negative, my emotions from that experience will come back,” she says. “Sometimes people will say that I purposely don’t let go, and I’m like I dwell on the negatives in my life.

“It’s terrible to be a medical exception because very few people understand what you’re going through and there just aren’t a lot of treatments designed for it.

“Remembering that way feels so normal to me.”

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