In May 2013, the University of California, Irvine identified me as having HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). HSAM is an extremely rare kind of memory that makes a person able to recall all or most of their autobiographical memories in precise detail. Everyone has autobiographical memories, regardless of whether they have HSAM or not. Autobiographical memories are about what we’ve experienced personally throughout our lifetime. Essentially they are the kind of which we would include in an autobiography of our own life.
My involvement in memory studies as a research participant has enabled my story to be featured in worldwide media. During various interviews, I’ve been asked about a downside of HSAM, which is about how it feels to relive negative experiences (as well as positive ones).
Due to my HSAM I (emotionally) relive past experiences constantly. This happens involuntarily without any sort of control. Nor does this have anything to do with mnemonic skills or having strengthened my recall by memory exercises.
Memories get triggered by the slightest of things. These can come from any particular scent, sound, word, tone of voice, weather etc. They often come from particular sights and patterns I see too. There is a condition that is called synaesthesia (or union of the senses), which enables a person to recall memories and lists of information by unrelated senses. One of the most well-known cases of synaesthesia was of a man named Solomon Shereshevsky, who’s story was featured in a book called Mind of a Mnemonist. Shereshevsky could famously see certain colours in his mind for each musical note, saw mental images for every number and experienced tastes for things he touched. From all that he was able to recall and recite things by memory in an extraordinary way.
In my own case, I don’t relive events (involuntarily or voluntarily) from crossing senses over. It’s more rather a situation of my mind and emotions going back to a past event, even though my reasoning and conscience remain in the present day. To better describe this I will give an example.
As a nineteen year old in 2009, I went for a walk to the park with my mother and younger siblings. While we were on the footpath I saw a fallen leaf that was angled in a particular way. The last time I had seen a leaf similarly angled was in 2002 when I was walking home from school with my friends. On that occasion a kid had taunted me in an immature way. As an adult I can shrug things like that off, but as a young adolescent I was stung by it. So while I was reliving that memory half of me was angry and wanted the kid punished, and the rest of my mind simultaneously knew that the event had both happened and was dealt with long ago. These moments of inner conflict bring along much confusion, which leads to added anxiety. This also happens multiple times each day.
Unfortunately HSAM is so rare that there aren’t any mindful exercises that are designed specifically for it. Yet there are many similarities between these kinds of memories and experiences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So exercises designed for PTSD do indeed work for those of us with HSAM. These include many kinds of meditation and grounding our mind in the present exercises, where for five or so minutes we only focus on what all of our physical senses are taking in.