Hell is a Perfect Memory

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

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That is an interesting point, and relates to some of the differences between computers and brains. Computers are very exact machines, and the tasks of inference and estimation are much more difficult to robustly accomplish with a computer, whereas people tend to be much better at inference and generalization while being poor at retaining vast quantities of details. This is especially true in machine vision, where computers have all sorts of exact details at their disposal like edge strength and absolute pixel values, but it is exceedingly hard to develop robust algorithms for object identification and segmentation.

The bit that I remember from Funes the Memorious is:

Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).

A great point, Jonah. I like how Alison Kidd put it in her CHI '94 paper "The Marks are on the Knowledge Worker,"

> Beware of the assumption that forgetting is a bad thing for humans. Forgetting is at the heart of new concept formation.

And John Medina lists forgetting as one of the four steps of declarative memory (encoding, storage, retrieval, forgetting).

I think of the process as freeing up space for new inputs, new ideas. Recently I've been reminded of nostalgia, and wondering if it's a trap. Should I continue listening to oldies once in a while, or drop them completely in favor of new music?

Finally, I consider external artifacts a productive way of offloading memories, i.e., as a forget-me-please tool. I wrote about it a while back, FYI: http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/04/gtd-tool-for-forgetting.html

I seem to remember his name was Solomon Shereshevsky, not D.C. (which is perhaps why Luria calls him S. not Sh., a different letter in Russian). Note, btw, that both Price and Shereshevsky are Jewish: I guess that after generations and generations were rewarded for memorizing the Torah this peculiar affliction must occasionally occur...

It isn't always a curse to have perfect recall.
Look at the case of the genius mathematician (and inventor of the computer processor, game theory) John von Neumann.
By all accounts von Neumann had perfect recall, and could translate into several languages. In Abraham Pais' book "The Genius of Science", Pais relates an anecdote in which von Neumann was asked how the beginning of "A Tale of Two Cities" goes and he went on for 15 minutes until he was asked to stop.

The way she relives emotional experiences from years ago, as if they were happening now, reminds me of how Doctor Manhattan (in "Watchmen") perceives the passage of time, except for the whole ability-to-see-the-future thing. Truly fascinating.

I have recently been interested in the overlapping, yet distinct, views of the world seen by artists and scientists.And I was most pleasantly surprised to find a book written on almost exactly that topic. I still haven't finished reading it ( it is one of those books that I tend to linger on, as I don't want it to get over).As I am only a geneticist ( or a biochemist) I hadn't heard of CPEB's role in long term memory. Do you know of any new data that supports that theory, as I was unable to find anything post the 2003 Cell paper. It was one of the things I hadn't been aware of. I am also an avid fan of Escher, who had practically no understanding of math and yet could come up the most detailed mathematical diagrams.I am certainly waiting for your second book to come out..

Thank you Jonah, for a moment imagined as forgotten.

By lee pirozzi (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

This is absolutely fascinating to me, and I don't have anything intelligent to say about the topic, except that I have very poor recall and a rather leaky memory and instead remember abstract concepts much better. The inability to recall specifics is endlessly frustrating to me.

I have always wondered about the spectrum of abstract-->specific thinkers. As I understand it, people with photographic memory often have difficulty with problem solving because they never had to learn to connect individual ideas analytically.

I'm curious about the tradeoff between exact recollection and the other skills that compensate for lack of it. It seems like the gain of a good memory comes at the cost of abstraction/generalization. The two ends of the spectrum seem to serve different functions.

But I have zero answers to my own questions :o

Musicians too.

The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who's party piece as a student was to play a transcription of Wagners Tristan from memory)toured endlessly inside the USSR going to the same towns and cities repeatedly.

In each place he would remember not only the names of everyone he met and re-met but also (I paraphrase from my own inadequate memeory) "that this was Lydia Vyrubova who's cousin Devenka lives in Premisyl....and on and on".

The look of infinite weariness on his face as he describes the gift that wont stop giving is very moving.

By Richard Lilley (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

I'm curious if changes to how she perceives herself and those events change the degree to which she is discomforted by thinking about them again. I would suppose so, but perhaps her mind retains her perspectives at that time as well in a way that makes her new understandings not apply.

By Sachman Bhatti (not verified) on 22 Dec 2008 #permalink