What would it be like to have an immaculate memory, so that every detail of life was instantly inscribed in the brain? It’s actually unbearable. Here’s Der Spiegel:
Price can rattle off, without hesitation, what she saw and heard on almost any given date. She remembers many early childhood experiences and most of the days between the ages of 9 and 15. After that, there are virtually no gaps in her memory. “Starting on Feb. 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday.”
She can also date events that were reported in the media, provided she heard about them at the time. When and where did the Concorde crash? When was O.J. Simpson arrested? When did the second Gulf war begin? Price doesn’t even have to stop and think. She can effortlessly recite the dates, numbers and entire stories.
“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”
In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”
She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.
This isn’t the first case report of a person with perfect memory. In the masterful The Mind of A Mnemonist, the Soviet neurologist A.R. Luria documented the story of a Russian newspaper reporter, D.C. Shereshevskii, who was incapable of forgetting. For example, D.C. would be bound by his brain to memorize the entire Divine Comedy of Dante after a single reading. Audiences would scream out random numbers 100 digits long and he would effortlessly recount them. The only requirement of this man’s insatiable memory was that he be given 3 or 4 seconds to visualize each item during the learning process. These images came to D.C. automatically.
Eventually, D.C.’s memory overwhelmed him. He. struggled with mental tasks normal people find easy. When he read a novel, he would instantly memorize every word by heart, but miss the entire plot. Metaphors and poetry – though they clung to his brain like Velcro – were incomprehensible. He couldn’t even use the phone because he found it hard to recognize a person’s voice “when it changes its intonation…and it does that 20 or 30 times a day.”
In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Funes the Memorious, which may or may not have been based on Luria’s patient, Borges invents a character (Ireneo Funes) whose “perception and memory are infallible…the present to him was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness.” Like D.C., Funes is driven mad by his boundless memory. He invents a nonsensical language where every object in the universe correlates to his private sign: “He then applied this absurd principle to numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins…In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark, the last in the series were very complicated…I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers…” For Funes though, his “language” was the only way he could encode reality. Unable to forget anything, Funes needed a dictionary as infinite as life itself: “Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence…Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.”
Samuel Beckett, in his essay on Proust, said it best: “A man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”
Via Andrew Sullivan