Try this quick memory test. First, in what year did former President Jimmy Carter win the Nobel Peace Prize? Next, in which Harry Potter book Harry imagined Voldemort’s snake attacking Arthur Weasley?
Most people cannot quickly recall either piece of information. (Carter won in 2002, by the way; the dream happened in the fifth book.) But people with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) can easily recall information from events that happened decades ago.
Scientists have only just begun to learn HSAM in 2006, and there’s still a lot they don’t understand about the experience. One thing they have learned is that there may be a link between HSAM and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
HSAM and OCD
2016 study Frontiers in Psychology wanted to understand the possible connection between people with HSAM and OCD. The researchers began testing people who claimed to have HSAM and responded to the call for potential participants. Interested participants went through a series of quizzes in which they had to complete a series of memory tasks related to public events. In one task, they were given a date (ie, February 1, 2003) and had to identify the event that occurred (the Space Shuttle Columbia crash).
Test takers had to score at least 50 percent on the first test and 65 percent on the second to qualify for the study. Of the participants, 30 made it to the end – 24 were men and the average age was 39. There was also a control group of 20 people chosen because they had a similar background.
The researchers conducted a telephone interview in which participants were given two minutes to recall as much as they could about events that happened one week, one month, one year and 10 years ago. They repeated the process a month later.
Controls and HSAM participants could recall the previous week’s event with comparable ability. That’s where the similarities end. The HSAM group remembered “significantly” more information about the other events, including those that happened a decade earlier. As the amount of memories was higher, so was the quality and accuracy.
But why? It turned out that they thought a lot about these events.
I remember when?
For most people, memories begin fade with age and the ones we do keep tend to be less accurate than years ago. People with HSAM, in contrast, can recall details of personal or social events that happened decades ago, and studies have found that they retain this ability as they age.
Of course, people without HSAM also have the potential to remember events for years to come. But people with HSAM don’t deliberately work to remember. They do not rehearse the information and do not rely on mnemonic aids to help them remember.
Read more: Understanding the basis of superior memory
For some people, HSAM means the ability to remember when and how public events happened in greater detail than people without this skill. This may include detailing passages from books or films and accurately describing the chronology of the narrative. In one studyone woman amazed researchers with her ability to recite practically everything Harry Potter books by heart and identify when specific sentences appeared in the sequence.
For other people, HSAM means they can remember the dates and the day of the week they happened. Ask what day February 14, 2015 was, and they’ll say it’s Saturday. Most people, on the contrary, are limited to remembering historical events. They remember that September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday or that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday. But without a personal connection, most people won’t remember that August 13, 2006 was a Sunday.
This does not mean that people with HSAM cannot have faulty memories or be subject to misinformation. 2013 study in PNAS found that people with HSAM were just as likely as controls to have false memories after reporting seeing footage of a plane crash that did not exist. The authors conclude that although HSAMs have exceptional abilities, probably “no one is immune from false memories.”
Reflections and reminiscences
During the testing phases of the 2016 study, many HSAM participants described themselves as having some obsessive tendencies. As part of the process, the researchers had them complete the Leyton Obsessive Inventory and found that they did meet criteria for OCD and had “strong obsessive tendencies.”
Researchers then theorized that OCD contributes to facial HSAM. Although they did not actively try to remember facts about certain events or stories, they replayed them so many times in their minds that it contributed to their recall.
Participants acknowledged that thinking about events or stories was a practice they found calming. If the day was September 1st, for example, thinking about what September 1st was like five or ten years ago was something they did when they were bored in traffic or trying to sleep. Researchers hypothesize that this type of passive experience leads to extraordinary recall.
There are still many researchers who would like to learn about HSAM and cognitive abilities. So far, they don’t think it’s a function of superior memory. A study found that although people with HSAM performed “significantly better” than controls when recalling public and private events, their scores on most standard laboratory tests were about the same as controls. Order another study superior intelligence as a possible explanation for HSAM’s abilities.
This is all part of a growing body of literature that only began in 2006, which, if memory serves, was not a year for Harry Potter book or movie release.