You may believe you have a good memory but I am sure it does not compare to the memory of individuals who are considered to have “super memory” capabilities: mnemonists, people with Savant syndrome, and people who have highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). Mnemonists use special memory tricks to learn huge amounts of information like the first 20,000 digits of pi and take part in competitions like the USA Memory Championship. In comparison, people with Savant syndrome have developmental disabilities or brain injuries and specialize at remembering aspects of a particular area without the use of mnemonic devices. The most recent memory phenomena, with the first case appearing in 2000, is called HSAM. People with HSAM have abnormally detailed memories of their pasts without any training. For example, if you were to ask them about a specific date 10 years ago in their past they could effortlessly tell you what they were wearing, who they were with, what they ate, and possibly public events that happened that day (see video clip!).
The first person with HSAM appeared in 2000, 5 more people people were identified in 2010, and 11 more people were identified in a 2012 study (LePort et. al., 2012). The argument going on about HSAM is whether or not these memory abilities are something that can be learned. The researchers in the 2012 study argue that the amazing memory capabilities of people with HSAM are far above anything that could be learned. In this study, HSAM participants were compared behaviorally and neuroanatomically to controls. The study found that HSAM participants had nine brain areas that were different from controls. Overall, it seems as though the structural changes in HSAM participants may somehow allow them to more efficiently use the parts of the brain involved in autobiographical memory. However, it is not clear if there is a genetic factor involved with HSAM. Although there is no evidence that people who are related to HSAM individuals have a higher chance of having HSAM, further research should investigate the possibility of a genetic basis.
Interestingly, some people with HSAM find their super memory to be a burden (even debilitating) while others see their memory as beneficial and entertaining. Often times cues can bring back a memory of their past and before they know it they are reviewing everything that happened to them in the last few years – this is both time-consuming and can be emotionally draining. On the other side of the spectrum some people like being able to review their lives in such accurate detail. Either way, I would argue that the memory abilities we see with people with HSAM are definitely above anything a person with normal memory could develop and it seems like the structural evidence of the 2012 study mentioned above suggests there must be some type of genetic involvement with HSAM.
LePort, A.K.R., Mattfeld, A.T., Dickinson-Anson, H. et al. (2012). Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 98, 78–92