Amazing Memories and the Potential Future of Memory Research.


Imagine being able to remember everything you have ever said or done. If you’re like me, I barely remember what I said two days ago let alone everything I’ve ever said. Though, I’m sure it would get rather annoying to our partners if that were the case. There are those rare individuals who have a gift (or curse) which is called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” or HSAM for short. These individuals have the uncanny ability to remember more personal and emotional memories. Memories referred to as episodic memories.

Episodic memories are just that, memories that have personal meaning that are tied to emotion. The other type of memory is called semantic memory. Semantic memories are not tied to emotions, they’re just facts. So if I ask you, who was the first President of the United States? Or, what is the capital of the United Kingdom? There probably is not much if any emotional ties to these answer, yet you were able to remember them. This is your semantic memory. Don’t worry, there are semantic memory champions as well:


So, it seems as though you can’t have it both ways, but that you can at least practice really hard and become good at your semantic memory. But how does memory really work? There are two ways that we’ll talk about it, the first will be cognitive and the other will be more neuroscience.

Cognitive psychologist use the Modal Model of Memory, which follows a path from sensory input, to sensory memory, to working memory, and then into long-term memory (LTM). Working memory is sometimes referred to as “short-term memory” though that term is not used as much anymore. From working memory, it has three places to go, the memory can decay, it can move into long-term, or the individual has to keep the memory active through rehearsal. Working memory has a capacity though, it can hold 7 items (plus or minus 2) within. It also has a time limit which is roughly 30 seconds, though if you believe old Hollywood movies, it’s more like 5 minutes. Once the memory goes into LTM, cognitive psychology doesn’t go into how it is stored, just mainly into how it is retrieved. For this, we turn to a more neuroscience approach:

According to Neuroscientists, forming a LTM starts this chain of neurons connecting that otherwise don’t normally connect. The example used above is building a bridge between two areas that weren’t previously connected. So, let’s take the example of the rats, when the tone is played, they receive a shock. After the first time, neurons are being connected to tell the rat, this tone equals a shock. After it is done a few more times, the connection between the neurons is stronger (long-term potentiation) and the signal is able to travel quicker when recalled.

This is only at the cellular level and does not fully explain the entire purposes, but it goes far enough for our purposes in this post because there has been a study done recently that challenges this school of thought. Neuroscientists have recently found that memories may actually exists within the neurons themselves. The implications of this, if supported, has not only the potential of changing the way in which we think about memory, but it could mean hope for those suffering from illnesses like PTSD and Alzheimer’s.

For PTSD sufferers, this could potentially mean that we could do a “Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and zap the neurons and get rid of the memories in which the individuals are having the problems with. For Alzheimer’s, this could mean that their memories are truly lost and that they could, with further research, regain some of the previously thought lost memories. The research is really still new and definitely needs further testing to gain any sort of support and I remain skeptical as one critic suggested that the “results were observed in the first 48 hours after treatment, a time when consolidation is still sensitive.” Consolidation refers to the process in which working short-term memory becomes long-term memories.

As this is the last post that I’ll probably be making on this blog, I leave you with this scene of Eternal Sunshine of the spotless Mind:


3 thoughts on “Amazing Memories and the Potential Future of Memory Research.

  1. amichaud

    Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory is definitely not a structural difference that you encounter everyday. It is a great example of just how complex memory is and how specialized it is for each and every individual. I can’t imagine what it must be like to remember something that happened from the earliest ages of life. Most people are able to forget memories that aren’t necessarily worth remembering as well as some traumatic events. That is an ability that after reading about HSAM I realized occasionally take for granted. Although remembering everything has its benefits, it definitely also comes with many downfalls like the woman in the article describes. It’s truly fascinating that each of her memories is tied to a different experience including something as specific as the weather on a certain day . So many different concepts play into memory, making it that much more intriguing to study and understand. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Erica

    You did a great job explaining Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. What really stood out to me is the fact you can have both episodic and semantic HSAM. Just by watching popular television shows and movies they make it seems as if these people have both. I know I can not possibly believe everything in entertainment, and it probably just makes for a better story line. I personally would not want HSAM. Sometimes it best for people to forget things. I wonder if people with this “gift”have a chance of memory loss as they age. I wonder if research has been done on these people as they age to see if it stays constant or starts to decline with age. That would be a very interesting study.

  3. aestero

    This is a great read! At first I wasn’t aware of HSAM and I think you did great in explaining what it is, and I now have a better understanding of what it is. It’s really intriguing and mind blowing to learn about how memory gets processed and how it works. Conducting research to further our knowledge on memory would really be helpful in understanding why certain memory gets lost and if that memory can be regained. The example you gave about zapping neurons for PTSD sufferers is actually really interesting to me and it makes me wonder if that really does work, and if so, for how long, and what would the implications be? With your Alzheimer’s example, I also think it would be great to find out whether researchers could find a way to ‘find’ the lost memories. Overall this was a very interesting and great read, I learned something new about memory.

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