Lighting corners of the mind

Published 3:52 pm Friday, September 30, 2011

“Happiness is good health and a short memory.” ~ Anon.

Is there a topic more ridiculed than memory? Especially as we age, we love to joke about our terrible memories, about the importance of making lists, about forgetting birthdays and anniversaries and beauty shop appointments, or about going blank sometimes when we jump up to race into another room to . . . do what? Seems everybody shares this problem, or almost everybody.

In the news lately is a skill called “Higher Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).” I don’t have it. The docs will not be experimenting with my brain, but they are working with folks who do display the amazing ability to remember almost every day of their lives. Memories pop into their heads at the mention of obscure dates or events. No tricks. Their minds work that way.

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The respected news program “60 Minutes” recently did a segment on HSAM and, although I missed it, a new CBS police drama titled “Unforgettable” aired a pilot episode a couple of weeks ago featuring a character with this rare talent. (I meant to watch but . . . umm . . . forgot.)

Fairly new to scientists, HSAM was spotlighted in a scholarly paper written in 2006 by a neuroscientist named James McGaugh. McGaugh and his associates have interviewed hundreds of people over the past few years, putting them through surveys and tests, including brain scans, finding people who can legitimately shuffle through their memories to answer questions like these:

Where were you on July 5, 2000, and what were you doing? On what day of the week did your 16th birthday occur? How did you celebrate Thanksgiving Day in 1992?

Actress Marilu Henner is one of those who definitely has HSAM. (Not to be confused with the Department of Homeland Security Acquisition Manual or an organization called “Help Street Animals of Morocco” — other HSAMs. Not kidding.)

Marilu, a consultant for the TV show, “Unforgettable,” says she just wants the public to know this is not some creepy condition.

She explains that when she goes back in her memory, she feels she’s actually there “in present time.” She says she’s back in her body looking out and experiencing what she saw and felt in that time and place.

“I can go and experience that day again,” she claims, “or that moment, or that party, or that restaurant.”

And that’s not creepy? Oh, well. She likes it.

Luckily for me (or maybe not), there’s one period in my life where I could answer the hard personal questions HSAM scientists ask about dates and events. That would be 1957 through the summer of 1964. Why? Well, not because I’m HSAM blessed.

I’ve preserved my religiously kept diaries from 7th grade through my second year of college. That’s pretty amazing in itself, but doesn’t put me in the company of those whose brains seem to have a larger capacity for remembering minute details.

That’s okay. Tennessee Williams once wrote, “Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” I’m finding it’s all I can do to chase these present moments.

Think you might have HSAM? Dr. McGaugh asks you to contact him at He’s got a few questions.