What would it be like to be able to remember anything you ever learned? Would it be a blessing or a curse?
Beginning in the early 20th century, psychologists have identified numerous cases of people with extraordinary memories that allow them to learn and retain new information with total accuracy. The most famous of these "mnemonists" as they have been called, was Solomon Veniaminovitch Sherashevski, the subject of Alexander Luria's classic book, The Mind of a Mnemonist. Identified only as "S" in Luria's book, Sherashevski could recall an amazing number of facts due to his talent for eidetic imagery, the synesthesia that allowed him to recall sights, sounds, and smells, and the numerous mnemonic strategies he relied on. Sadly enough, despite being able to make a living for a while as a memory expert, he seemed to have significant difficulty living a normal life due to his inability to forget anything he learned and the continual daydreaming caused by his constant recall. At last report, he was working as a cab driver before fading into obscurity.
And there have certainly been other mnemonists since Sherashevski's time, many of whom actively compete in national and international memory championships and who spend much of their time training their memories using visual and auditory recall techniques. Certainly the memory feats they are capable of seem astounding enough, including being able to recall the order of all 52 cards in a deck or reciting the value of pi to 22,000 decimal places. Oddly enough though, research suggests that these professional mnemonists are no better than the average population when it comes to remembering events out of their own lives.
But there are also people whose memories seem to work very differently. For reasons that are still unclear, certain people seem to be able to recall virtually every moment of their lives dating back to early childhood, a condition more commonly known as hyperthymesia. They are also able to recall almost any public event that occurred on a given date so long as it has a personal significance for them. As opposed to mnemonists, people with hyperthymesia don't rely on any mnemonic techniques to retain autobiographical memories, it seems to happening automatically for them. While only a handful of these cases have been formally studied by cognitive scientists, laboratory testing using clinical tests of learning and memory show no real indication that they are any better than average when it comes to learning new information. In a sense, this makes them polar opposites to mnemonists.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.