Extraordinary Memory Abilities
The vast potential of the human brain becomes especially clear in the domain of memory. The most captivating instances of superior memory ability may be few and far between—the savant who memorizes a library’s worth of books, the otherwise regular person who can’t help but remember what she did 10 years ago today. But such cases show that, at its outer reaches, memory capacity can be far more immense than it is for most of us on even our most lucid day.
Some awe-inspiring individuals develop highly unusual abilities to remember particular kinds of information—personal experiences, historical facts, musical compositions, or others. These powers of memory can arise in the absence of extensive training, and the cause is often unclear. And they can appear in people who are otherwise intellectually ordinary, or who show deficits in other areas of cognitive functioning.
Hyperthymesia, also known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), is the ability to remember far more about one’s own life than is typical, including details of personal experiences and when they occured. Someone with HSAM would likely be able to recount what she personally did, what the weather was like, or what the top news was on a randomly chosen date many years ago. She may also be able to recall the exact dates on which various events occurred. However, people with HSAM do not show such unusual memory for all kinds of information, their autobiographical memory is not perfect, and they may not stand out on other cognitive characteristics.
Highly superior autobiographical memory is thought to be very rare. As of the mid-2010s, according to an expert report, fewer than 100 people with highly superior autobiographical memory ability had been found.
Some research indicates that the brains of individuals with HSAM may be structurally different from the average in certain ways, though it is not clear to what extent these differences are innate. While the causes of HSAM are not yet established, some possibilities that have been raised are that enhancements in the amygdala and its connections to other brain areas might play a role, or that obsessive tendencies observed in people with HSAM may be a factor in their extraordinary memory.
A savant is someone with an intellectual disability or nervous system injury or disease, or who is on the autism spectrum, and who also demonstrates extraordinary mental abilities in specific domains, typically involving powerful memory. Arguably the most famous example, Kim Peek—who helped inspire the main character of the movie Rain Man—was reportedly able to, for instance, memorize the contents of thousands of books in addition to other huge quantities of information. Other memory-related savant abilities that have been observed include recitating complex musical compositions or reproducing visual scenes after very little exposure to them.
Various theories have been proposed, though no one theory is likely to explain all cases of savants’ memory abilities. Among the proposals are that dysfunction in one area of the brain may lead to compensation in another, helping to account for the limited range of extraordinary abilities. Brain damage is relatively common among savants, and injury and disease affecting the brain have in rare cases been associated with “acquired” savant abilities in previously typical individuals.
In some reported cases, individuals show amazing memory abilities that are neither focused specifically on personal experience or connected to a savant syndrome. Solomon Sherashevski, for example, known as “S” in the book The Mind of a Mnemonist, reportedly leveraged synesthesia as well as mnemonic strategies to remember extraordinary quantities of information, such numbers, words, and phrases. Another person called “MM” was described as being able to name all Olympic medalists and the winning times and scores, along with other kinds of historical facts, despite being unsure how he was able to do so.
While there does not appear to exist an ability to remember an image or scene with perfect accuracy, some people nevertheless are able to retain an impressive amount of visual information in memory. Artist Stephen Wiltshire is known for his ability to recreate, from memory, intricate real-life scenes on paper. So-called eidetikers, or people with eidetic memory, exhibit the ability to remember an image in vivid (but imperfect) detail for a brief time after they stop seeing it.
For savants, extraordinary memory abilities often coincide with struggles and limitations in other areas, including difficulty with more ordinary cognitive or social tasks. For non-savants with extraordinary memory, too, case studies suggest the inability to forget information in the way that most people do may sometimes interfere with normal functioning.
Some people accomplish impressive feats of memory not because of a radical difference in cognitive functioning relative to other people, but through training and the use of techniques for enhancing memory. The examples of these memory champions suggest that even relatively ordinary minds can take memory to extraordinary levels.
A memory athlete is someone who participates in memory competitions, which can involve a variety of tests of memory ability. Competitors train their ability to recall information with the aid of mental techniques called mnemonics. Memory sport includes international competitions (the World Memory Championships launched in 1991) as well as national and lower-level contests.
Some of the feats performed by memory champions include memorizing long strings of digits, series of random words, sequences of cards in decks, and names and faces. Memory champions regularly set new world records: In 2019, for example, a contender memorized a sequence of 335 random words in 15 minutes. Another memorized 1,168 digits in the same amount of time.
Memory athletes who compete did not necessarily have excellent memories prior to taking an interest in mnemonics. Some research has found that with consistent training in a mnemonic strategy (such as the method of loci, or “memory palace”) over a course of weeks, individuals who are not memory athletes can improve considerably at recalling information. That said, anecdotal evidence suggests that memory competitors often have certain qualities, including relatively high IQs, that support their high levels of ability.