A Woman Who Can Recall Every Second of Her Life
Would you like to have a super memory? What if you could remember any piece of your life in great detail? For example, you’re walking down the street with a friend, and you hear a song. You remember hearing a fragment of this song ten years ago on TV during the winter holidays in the Alps.
You remember every celebration of your birthday, every party in your life. Sounds cool, but is it so good to remember your whole life? Let’s find out by the example of a real person.
Meet Rebecca Sharrock from Brisbane, Australia, who remembers her whole life. Literally, all of it. All events are stored in her mind almost from birth, and she has immediate access to them. She remembers her parents put her in the driver’s seat of a car for a photo just a few days after her birth. She remembers how the seat cover and steering wheel aroused her curiosity.
Rebecca remembers how she started having her first dreams at 18 months old. She didn’t distinguish dreams from reality and thought that she was really leaving home somewhere. That’s why she always wanted her mom to be with her. She also remembers by heart a big book she read many years ago.
She can easily remember how she lay in bed, looked at the surrounding toys, and how her mother approached her to feed her when she couldn’t even talk and walk. She sees it so clearly as if it happened yesterday. She remembers not only visual images but also smells and even feelings and sensations that she experienced during some moments in the past.
For a long time, Rebecca lived confident that everyone in the world had such a memory. Then, in adolescence, she began to suspect something was wrong with her. She noticed that she was fixated on some things from the past much more than her surroundings. It seemed to her that she had a mental disorder, and she felt insecure for this reason.
But she had no idea how special she was. She learned about her uniqueness at age 21 when her parents showed her a news report about people with a phenomenal memory. Rebecca was surprised that it was something special. She realized she was among the 60 people worldwide with highly superior autobiographical memory or HSAM.
This is a neurological condition of the brain in which a person can quickly and effortlessly reproduce in memory any fragment from life in the past. These may be some social events or personal experiences. And all of them spring up in your memory as clearly as if you’re watching a high-quality video recording.
Scientists are still studying the HSAM phenomenon. It was discovered at the beginning of this century, and there are few objects to study, only about 60 people. The lack of information and observation slows the research process, but doctors have already learned something.
This is part of the brain that helps process memory. A person with an ordinary mind remembers bright moments from life very well. In a sense, the brain of people with HSAM records all the moments as bright ones. That’s why people have such easy access to them.
It was important for Rebecca to get an official medical diagnosis because she wanted a clear answer to the question of what was wrong with her and to improve her self-esteem. To confirm the diagnosis, Rebecca had to go through a multi-year study. She did various analyses and passed multiple tests. Then, a couple of years later, Rebecca returned and told the scientists about what had happened two years ago.
When her case became famous, she revealed the dark sides of her gift, which she also calls a curse. So, HSAM seems like a cool superpower, but there’s a bad side here. Do you know that moment when you’re lying in bed and suddenly remember something embarrassing that happened to you a few years ago?
For example, you disgraced yourself during a presentation or couldn’t find the right phrase in an argument, or behaved very stupidly on a date. So, people with HSAM have constant access to all these awkward moments. You can remember every last detail of every wrong moment in life. And, of course, such thoughts are pretty challenging to control.
Imagine how difficult it will be to fall asleep if you start remembering and reliving bad moments in life. It would be hard not to go crazy after years of such a life. And the problem is not even in the most minor visual details but in the repeated reproduction of feelings and emotions.
Someone said something hurtful to you, or you saw scary pictures on TV many years ago — all this can pop up in your memory many years later if you have HSAM and return the same emotions to you. If Rebecca remembers a stressful case when she was three years old, then as an adult, she will experience this case as a three-year-old girl. Such emotional swings contribute to the appearance of depression, anxiety, and stress.
And the more negative emotions you accumulate, the harder it will be for you to fall asleep at night. That’s why Rebecca takes great care in life. She understands that any unpleasant thing can remain in her memory forever. She takes medications to control the incoming information and goes to a therapist who helps her avoid bad situations.
Imagine that you need to think ahead about every step in your life. “Should I watch this movie or not? Go home the other way? Read this dude’s Twitter thread?” This makes you too cautious and severely restricts your life because you know these moments will stay with you forever. Perhaps you would avoid risks so as not to fail. And such a life reduces the chances of success in every way.
Yeah, it’s cool to have HSAM if you were born into a wealthy family, travel a lot, have no health, mental, or social issues, everything works out for you, and you’re always happy. But let’s be honest, almost no one has such a life. And even the rich and successful have problems.
Some people with HSAM say that their memories are well-organized in the brain, like books on a bookshelf in alphabetical order. But Rebecca’s memory is chaotic. Her brain is filled with worries. This often causes her insomnia and headaches. Perhaps this is because she also has a confirmed diagnosis of autism.
But Rebecca’s life didn’t turn into a nightmare. Fortunately, she learned how to overcome bad memories with positive ones. If some bad moment begins to invite into her mind, she covers it with a happy piece from her life. And this is the most beautiful part of HSAM.
This feature in the brain helps you solve exams, learn something quickly, and remember all books and movies, but the coolest thing is the opportunity to experience happiness anew. Even if you’re in a bad mood, you remember how much fun you had that day at the water park, and your brain enjoys this moment. This allows you to experience happiness every day, every minute.
At the beginning of each month, Rebecca selects the best moments of this month in the past years. When she returns to them, it helps to fight bad memories.
Another cool feature Rebecca has learned is the ability to turn any nightmare into a happy and beautiful dream. She can build and create whatever she wants during sleep, and she can remember all her dreams. Not all people with HSAM have this ability, but some also reported they had lucid dreams they could control.
By the way, the only memory Rebecca doesn’t have is her birthday. She doesn’t know how she felt inside her mother’s belly and says she wouldn’t want to remember it.
Today Rebecca lives an ordinary life. She doesn’t want big changes and likes to think and feel how she’s used to it. She hopes that her case will help many people worldwide, so she participates in two scientific studies that can help treat certain brain diseases.