Have you ever forgotten your mum’s birthday and experienced the mortification that follows? She looks to your right hand, no card; she looks to your left hand, no flowers. Or have you ever clasped an empty carton in frustration, having once again forgotten that you’re out of milk? Or have you forgotten what the weather was like at 11pm on the 3rd July 2004? Of course you have.
It is a common desire to improve our memory. We have all stared at a blank exam paper and begged our whirring brain to flick through our memories and come up an adequate answer. But what underpins this process of recollection? Why do we forget things? And how does our brain select what we remember and what we forget? Such questions pervade popular culture. Indeed, amnesia has been the basis of a number of major films (think Mulholland Drive, Memento and the more forgettable Fifty First Dates). These films explore how much of a person’s identity is the sum of their memories, and how losing them can alter your view of yourself and the world around you.
Less popular, however, is the consideration of an even more bizarre and rare condition: remembering everything. Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes the Memorious offers an interesting insight into hyper-memory. In the story we encounter Ireneo, a young man who, after falling from a horse, can recall without effort everything that he has ever seen and experienced:
“He lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories.”
Paralysed by his fall, Ireneo spends all his time indoors in a darkened room. But he cannot escape the domineering hyper-awareness that controls his mind. He perceives the past and the present, the inconsequential as well as the important, sometimes recalling entire days in a real time sequence:
“He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once…”
Ireneo soon dies of “pulmonary congestion,” seemingly drowned by this condition of overwhelming sensual experience and awareness. The short story appears in Borges’ famous collection Labyrinths amidst stories that feature libraries with infinite rooms and maps so large that they exactly cover the thing they represent. The reader may dismiss the tale as an entirely conceptual fiction, but the condition is real and affects a number of people worldwide. We are not talking about Derren Brown’s impressive ability to memorise a London A to Z, or British memory champion Dominic O’Brien who can remember the sequence of a pack of cards in just three minutes. We are talking about a rare neurological condition, commonly referred to as photographic memory or total recall, officially called eidetic memory.
Notable cases of eidetic memory include Stephen Wiltshire, who can memorize the skyline of a city from one helicopter ride and draw it with implausible accuracy (pictured). John Von Neumann possesses similar powers of recollection: he is able to memorise a column of a phone book with a single glance. It is Jill Price of America, however, who holds the title of the most extreme case of eidetic memory ever documented. Price claims that is was around the age of twelve when she started to live two lives simultaneously, one in the present and the other in the past. “I have a split screen in my head,” she told journalist Diane Sawyer. “I am here with you in the present, but I also have a screen where I have a loop of memories free flowing all the time.” Price travels back in time in her mind, trawling through past memories and, like Ireneo, constructing whole events and experiences. She finds it cathartic to keep a diary and so far has amassed over 50,000 pages worth.
Although Price acknowledges eidetic memory can be useful, she generally see the condition as a burden. She lives an unedited life, feeling bad about things that happened thirty years ago and experiences old emotions viscerally as if grievances had happened just that second. They say time is a great healer. But for Price the emotions felt after a break-up are as strong as if the split happened yesterday. Regrets, choices, decisions – every event and subsequent emotion appears fresh and clear.
“I have a split screen in my
head. I am here with you in
the present, but I also have
a screen where I have a loop
of memories free flowing all
Scientists have a hard time explaining the condition. Enlargement in the brain of patients reflect the same pattern as those with OCD. Just as people with OCD are in a constant battle to horde and organise things, suffers of eidetic memory too ‘horde’ images in their minds. Scientists hope that Price’s mind could prove crucial in helping to unlock the secret of Alzheimer’s disease and may even go some way to understanding the nature of genius.
So next time you are staring at a blank exam paper, struggling to recall information, perhaps take a small, infinitesimal solace in the fact that our happiness depends on not just what we experience, but what we choose to edit from our lives and forget.