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1:43 pm
Fri December 27, 2013

When Memories Never Fade, The Past Can Poison The Present

Originally published on Mon December 30, 2013 5:08 am

On Feb. 21, Alexandra Wolff ate steak, mashed potatoes and broccoli for dinner. Later that night, sitting in her room, she spent 20 minutes scanning pictures in InStyle magazine.

She remembers those things, just as she remembers that on Aug. 2 she stopped at Target and bought Raisin Bran; and on April 17 she wore a white button-down shirt; and on Oct. 2 she went to TGI Fridays and spoke to the hostess, who was wearing black leather flats with small bows on them.

Alexandra Wolff has what's known as highly superior autobiographical memory. She is one of only 55 people in the U.S. who have been identified with this ability. All of these people can remember details about their lives that the rest of us couldn't hope to remember: the strangers they pass on the street, the first thing they saw when they woke up seven months ago.

And though it's not clear why the brains of people with HSAM can do what they do, what is clear is that this ability gives them an access to the past that's profoundly different from you and me.

If you think of 2013, probably only a handful of memories stand out. The day-by-day is a blur.

We forget most of our lives.

But Alexandra says that remembering even an inconsequential trip to Target is an almost physical experience for her. She says she sees what she saw that day, hears what she heard, and emotionally feels what she felt at the time.

"Right down to getting sick to my stomach or getting a headache," she says. "It's almost like time travel."

But being unable to forget can affect your relationship to the present, people with this form of memory say.

Alexandra is 22 and lives with her mother in a long brick ranch house in southern Maryland. She has dark hair and beautifully balanced features, but hasn't really dated and seems to have few of the preoccupations of most 22-year-olds. She blames her memory for this, saying it separates her from other people her age because they can't understand why she's so focused on things that have already happened.

Alexandra often feels frustrated with her preoccupation with the past. "It seems like you hold onto everything, and it seems like you're just stuck in the past all the time," she says.

It really bothers her. For one, Alexandra says, in her life there are no fresh days, no clean slates without association. Every morning when she wakes up, details of that date from years before are scrolling through her mind, details that can profoundly affect the new day she's in.

For example, the day before we spoke was a day when years ago in middle school a boy bullied her in one of her classes.

"I didn't mention it to anyone," she says, "but I mean, still in the back of my mind I kept thinking and thinking about it. It knocked some of my confidence down."

Because the past is so viscerally right there, so available, she finds that when the present gets overwhelming, it's hard not to retreat to the past.

Even though she's only 22, she says she spends huge amounts of time in her room with her eyes closed, reliving the past in her mind, particularly this one day a decade ago.

It was July 8, 2004. She spent that day in a bathing suit by a pool laughing and playing with her 10-year-old cousin. They ate macaroni and cheese, and swam. It was an easy, innocent time.

She says she probably takes herself through that day in her mind four times a week. Over the past couple of years, she estimates, she's probably spent close to 2,000 hours reliving that one day.

"I mean, I definitely say it's a huge temptation. I could, if I didn't have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7."

Scientists think there's a reason why we forget.

"It has long been believed by research scientists that forgetting is adaptive," says James McGaugh, the University of California, Irvine neurobiologist who first documented highly superior autobiographical memory.

McGaugh discovered HSAM by accident. He got an email out of the blue from a woman named Jill Price who said she had a serious memory problem: She couldn't seem to forget anything, and like Alexandra, this bothered her.

"The emotions evoked by remembering bad things troubled her," McGaugh says.

And so McGaugh started studying first Price and then other people with this kind of memory. He found ultimately that there are differences in the brains of people with HSAM, though it's not clear whether the differences are the cause or the consequence of this ability.

But it is clear that it's specifically this issue of forgetting that's different. If you were asked to recall what happened to you earlier this morning, you'd remember roughly the same amount as someone like Alexandra. But if asked about this morning three months from now, for you it would probably be gone, while for her it's as fresh as it is for you today.

"So it's not that they're superior learners," McGaugh says, "it's that they are very poor at forgetting."

The emotional effects of not being able to forget aren't clear, says McGaugh. No one, including McGaugh, has studied it. His sense is that there is variation in the group of 55.

"The effects of having this ability depends on the kind of experiences people have had in the past as well as their present circumstances," he says.

But Bill Brown, another person with HSAM, says that he's been in touch with most of the people in the group, and that everyone he has spoken to has struggled with depression. He says that very few of them have been able to maintain a long-term marriage — the rumor is only 2 out of the 55.

Brown himself, though a pretty jolly guy, recently separated from his wife.

And talking to him, you do get the sense that the difference in his memory has led to misunderstandings in his relationships.

"Just because I remember something that you did wrong doesn't mean that I still hold it against you," he says. "But it's taken me a long while to realize that folks without my ability probably don't understand that distinction. Because after all, if you're bringing it up, the logic from the other side would be: You must still hold it against me."

This is not, in fact, the case, he says. "It has more to do with wanting you to be honest in your dealings."

What he eventually realized was that most of the people he talks to are being as honest as they know how to be. "They just don't necessarily remember."

Brown says it's easier for him now, because over time he's learned how to manage the memories, not to focus on the bad stuff, and instead use his memory to entertain himself.

"But you know," he says, "life's rough, and there's so much bad that's kinda there."

Sometimes, he says, he thinks it might be nice to forget.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Most of the time, when we talk about forgetting, we talk about how bad that is. We scold ourselves for not being able to remember names or appointments and we mourn the fact that the people we love are losing their memory. Well, NPR's Alix Spiegel wanted to get a different view of forgetting.

She wanted to see what it could be like if you had the opposite problem and couldn't forget. To find out, she went to talk to people with what's called highly superior autobiographical memory.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: On August 2nd of this past year, Alexandra Wolff made a quick stop at the Target near her house to pick up some groceries. You've probably made a stop like this over the last year. You've probably made dozens of them. The difference between you and Wolff is that she can remember every one. For instance, can remember every detail of that totally insignificant stop she made on August 2nd, down to each of the items she placed in her shopping cart.

ALEXANDRA WOLFF: Target brand Raisin Bran, Simply Orange orange juice, Ensure, grapes, Cheezits and strawberries.

SPIEGEL: Wolff has highly superior autobiographical memory and so she remembers what happened to her and what she did every day of the last year, what she wore and ate at every meal, the strangers she passed on the street.

WOLFF: I mean, I can even - if you take me back a year ago today, I can even remember if the fan in the bedroom was on or not. I mean, that's how detailed I can remember it.

SPIEGEL: Researchers have identified 55 people in the U.S. with this kind of memory for autobiographical information. And though it's not clear why their brains do what they do, what is clear is that this ability gives them an access to the past that's profoundly different from you or me. Wolff says that for her, remembering even an inconsequential trip to the Target is an almost physical experience.

She sees what she saw that day, she hears what she heard that day, and she feels the emotions that she felt at the time.

WOLFF: Even sometimes down to getting sick to my stomach or getting a headache.

SPIEGEL: It's just right there as if you were there.

WOLFF: Right. It's almost like time travel.

SPIEGEL: So what's it like when you don't forget? How does having this kind of access to the past affect your relationship with the present? Wolff says that for her, it's been challenging.

WOLFF: It seems like you hold onto everything, and it seems like you're just stuck in the past all the time and it's hard to get other people to understand it.

SPIEGEL: For one, Wolff says that in her life there are no fresh days, no clean slates without associations because every morning when she wakes up, on some level, scrolling through her mind are all of the experiences of that date from years before, experiences that can profoundly affect the new day she's in.

For example, the day before we spoke, Alexandra said, was a day that years ago in middle school she'd been bullied by a boy in one of her classes.

WOLFF: I didn't mention it to anyone. I didn't mention it to my mom. I didn't mention it to any friends that I was talking to but, I mean, still in the back of my mind I kept thinking about it and it made me feel - it knocked some of my confidence down.

SPIEGEL: But also, because the past is so viscerally right there, so available, she finds that when the present gets overwhelming, it's hard not to retreat there. Even though she's only 22, she says she spends huge amounts of time in her room with her eyes closed, reliving the past in her mind, particularly this one day when she was a kid.

WOLFF: July 8th, 2004.

SPIEGEL: She spent that day in a bathing suit by a pool laughing and playing with her 10-year-old cousin. They ate macaroni and cheese, they swam. It was an easy, innocent time. And so in the evenings after work, she says that she relives every detail of that day again and again. She says she probably relives it at least four times a week.

How many hours of your life do you think you've spent reliving that day?

WOLFF: Maybe a thousand to 2,000. I mean, I definitely say it's a huge temptation. I could, if I didn't have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7.

JAMES MCGAUGH: It has long been believed by research scientists that forgetting is adaptive.

SPIEGEL: That's James McGaugh, the neurobiologist who first documented this phenomenon. He discovered it by accident, got an email out of the blue from this woman named Jill Price who said she had a serious memory problem: She couldn't seem to forget anything, and like Wolff, it really bothered her.

MCGAUGH: 'Cause the emotion that's evoked by remembering bad things troubled her.

SPIEGEL: So McGaugh started studying first Price and then others with this kind of memory and ultimately found that there are differences in the brains of people like Wolff. It's just not clear if those differences are the cause or the consequence of the ability. But it is the forgetting, in particular, in their brains that's different.

That is, if you were asked to recall what happened to you earlier this morning, you'd remember roughly the same amount as someone like Wolff. It's just that if you were asked about this morning three months from now, for you it would probably be gone, while for her it's as fresh as it is for you today.

MCGAUGH: So that it is not that they're superior learners, they are very poor at forgetting.

SPIEGEL: In terms of how this inability to forget emotionally effects people, McGaugh says it hasn't been studied by him or by anyone, but he gets the sense that it varies. Some can enjoy it, others find it torture.

MCGAUGH: The effect of having this ability depends upon the kind of experiences people have had in the past as well as their present circumstances.

SPIEGEL: Still, for this story, I was in touch with about 10 people with this ability and heard from several who'd been in touch with most of the group through Facebook or through meetings that almost all of them seemed to have struggled with depression.

SIEGEL: Also, apparently relatively few in the group have been able to maintain marriages. My contacts told me only 2 out of the 55. And McGaugh says he can see that.

MCGAUGH: It is difficult, both on the, let's say, on the humorous side and on the serious side. The humorous side is that you can imagine dealing with somebody who has a very strong autobiographical memory to be around the person like that all the time and always be corrected by them.

Oh, isn't this a nice restaurant. We were here two weeks ago. Oh, no, no, it was four weeks ago.

SPIEGEL: And then, there's the serious side.

BILL BROWN: Because not only do I remember where people have wronged me, I remember where I've wronged them.

SPIEGEL: Bill Brown's another person with highly superior memory.

BROWN: And there are times it would nice that you could forget even what you've done.

SPIEGEL: Now, Bill Brown is a pretty jolly guy who seems at peace with his inability to forget, but says that for him, it hasn't always been so easy. For most of his life, he tells me, he struggled with depression. He's had nine different psychiatrists. But over the years, he says he's learned to manage his memory.

BROWN: You kind of have to make a conscious choice to use it in the positive way and not dwell on the negative.

SPIEGEL: For instance, when Brown is overwhelmed by a memory in the morning, as Wolff talked about, he does something that he calls spring-boarding.

BROWN: Spring-boarding would be that you have a day that's bad, that has been across your life, it seems, either a bad day or more bad days than good. You spring-board to - it may be the next day on the calendar, it may be a week later, it may be a day later, maybe months later.

SPIEGEL: In his mind, he consciously switches out the memory of bad for good and plays the good over and over and over in his head, blocking out the bad. Wolff says she doesn't have this ability. She has no control over what comes or when it comes, but eventually hopes to find a way around her inability to forget so that she can live more fully in the present.

WOLFF: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, it's too much to miss out on, living in the past.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.