Living in the Shackles of Memory

What are your bars made of? And how far would you go to be rid of them?
What are your bars made of? And how far would you go to be rid of them?
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Human memory is tricky, to say the least. It's an ever-changing cloud of imperfect recollections, distortions and outright fabrications. It's a tag cloud full of joys, torments and minutia. And while savants and mnemonists can sometimes exhibit startling displays of memory, there is no such thing as total recall.

Following a 2005 study published in the journal Neurocase, however, the media had a field day with Jill Price, a California woman with an amazing capacity for personal memory. Give her a name and she can tell you exactly where and when she spoke to that person last and what the subject was. Throw out a date and she can link it to plane crashes, presidential elections and episodes of "Dallas."

The catch, as cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus explained for WIRED, is that Price's memory has far less to do with her mental faculties and everything to do with personality. She remembers because she obsesses about her personal past. She keeps an exhaustive diary and skirts the edges of hording behavior by, for instance, keeping every copy of TV Guide since 1989.

The aforementioned mnemonists generally depend on the method of loci, a spatial memory-boosting method that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Price, on the other hand, just constantly goes over her own personal history -- a pattern seemingly tied to two traumatizing moves in her past, one at age 8 and another at age 37. Price has lived with her parents her entire life.

You could say she knows her own personal history like the back of her hand, which I think is a particularly apt metaphor. I imagine her stroking and caressing her past as if it were a physical part of who she is, inadvertently memorizing every swirling, crisscrossed line of palm and finger. The historical facts and TV trivia she's absorbed along the way are sort of like the rings and bracelets on the hand. She knows them only because of their proximity and importance to her personal history. Start quizzing her about pre-1965 history, Marcus says, and she'll blank. She has also tested capable of forming distorted memories, just like everyone else.

The most haunting thing to come out of Marcus' interview with Price is her claim to live every moment "as if there's a split screen running in her mind -- one half on the present, the other on the past."

No matter how tragic or blessed your life has been, the mind has an amazing knack for constructing demons out of the past. Allow me to get all new age-y for a moment and quote Eckhart Tolle: "To be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation." Or to cite an oft-attributed Buddha quote, "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." You can find much the same advice from any number of religious and philosophical authorities. To find true peace, we have to separate ourselves from the past and future and live as much as possible in the formless and mindless present.

As such, Price's condition (dubbed hyperthymestic syndrome) seem to present a particularly tragic set of mental shackles. Certainly, hers is an amazing case, underlying the sort of things our minds are truly capable of. It brings to mind one of my all-time favorite quotes from author Grant Morrison:

"Your head's like mine, like all our heads; big enough to contain every god and devil there ever was. Big enough to hold the weight of oceans and the turning stars. Whole universes fit in there! But what do we choose to keep in this miraculous cabinet? Little broken things, sad trinkets that we play with over and over. The world turns our key and we play the same little tune again and again and we think that tune's all we are." -- Grant Morrison (The Invisibles Vol. 1: Say You Want a Revolution)

Another favorite author of mine, R. Scott Bakker, has a novel coming out this year titled "The Disciple of the Dog," which will apparently center around a private detective who suffers from hyperthymestic syndrome. If you haven't read any of Bakker's fiction (such as his "Prince of Nothing" trilogy), this might sound awfully trite and gimmicky, but he's a writer with a knack for plunging the depths of the human psyche. Filled as his works are with sorcery or (or, in the case of "Neuropath," sci-fi serial killers), he often provides a rather harrowing examination of such neuroscientific and philosophical topics as the illusion of free will and the very nature of consciousness.

As such, I'm sure Bakker has cooked up quite a tormented and amoral protagonist in his upcoming thriller. In the meantime, read "Welcome to the Semantic Apocalypse," about the author's rather bleak forecast for the continued evolution of the human mind.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.