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Extraordinary Memory Abilities

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

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.

Hyperthymesia, Savants, and Photographic Memory

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.

What is highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM)?

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.

How many people have HSAM?

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.

Memory Champions

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.

What is a memory athlete?

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.

What can memory champions do?

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. 

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