“Imagine if you could bottle a memory like scent. Then, whenever you wanted, you could open it. It’d be like living the moment all over again,” Lily James’ unnamed character (later in the film she would simply be referred to as “Mrs. de Winter”) mused, as she lay on the beach, in a perfectly serene setting. Maxim is delicately putting sand on her back, “And what particular moments in your young life would you bottle?” “This week. Now. Every minute of it. Never forget it,” she sighed. “And any memories you didn’t want, you could simply throw away” was Maxim’s ominous response ( Rebecca, 2020).
Memory indeed is a tricky thing.
I’ve always been the forgetful type. But in College, I made up for it by studying my major meticulously. What else could I do anyway? I was staying in a dormitory and was perpetually broke (nothing changed much these days, lol, except I don’t live in a dorm anymore). My diet consisted of canned goods, instant noodles, fast food, and bad cafeteria food. (Well, not really bad, my school’s cafeterias actually sold delicious dishes. “Bad cafeteria food” just sounded more appropriate to the narrative.) Remember kids: Don’t emulate me, eat healthy. Your body would thank you later. I couldn’t go out much, even if I wanted to. When I was not studying in the library, I was working or attending our organizations’ activities. While some classmates were out drinking or partying, I was at the computer laboratory, handing out students’ numbers. There wasn’t much left to do during my shift but to read and study as well. It was like earning while you’re learning. My General Psychology professor must have been deceived, as she advised my blockmate to ask tips for memorizing from me. If she only knew!
Photographic Memory vs. Eidetic Memory
Since I was in the habit of forgetting things (people’s names, birthdays, information I need for school, and so much more), I had wished I had a photographic memory when I was young. Perhaps it was on The Big Bang Theory that I found out that there was no such thing as a photographic memory, and that it was a misnomer for eidetic memory, which Sheldon Cooper had. Only to find out later, that though the two terms are used interchangeably, they were in fact, two different things. Photographic memory refers to “the ability to recall a past scene in detail with great accuracy — just like a photograph” (Ye, n.d.). On the other hand, “in eidetic memory a person has an almost faithful mental image snapshot or photograph of an event in their memory. However, eidetic memory is not limited to visual aspects of memory and includes auditory memories as well as various sensory aspects across a range of stimuli associated with a visual image” according to Taylor (2013, p. 1099). This phenomenon, though, only “occurs in between 2 and 15 percent of children and very rarely in adults” (Foer, 2006). So much for wishful thinking…
Sherlock and His Mind Palace
Another famous fictional character I often associate with an eidetic memory is Sherlock Holmes, with his powers of deduction. But when I watched Sherlock, the BBC TV series, I discovered he was utilizing a mnemonic device called the “mind palace.” (Or perhaps it was just in this version, not necessarily in the novels as well.) The technique, known as the method of loci (also memory palace or memory journey), which dates way back to Ancient Rome and Greece, is “a strategy of memory enhancement that uses visualization of spatial environments to enhance the recall of information.” You basically picture a place (can be a building, house, palace, or even a road) you are very familiar with or create your own, arrange the whole route, and assign mental images (the things that you want to remember) along the way. People who participate at various memory-related competitions are said to employ this method. I honestly don’t know how it actually works! Just thinking about it is giving me a headache LOL.
The Woman Who Can’t Forget
Speaking of highly intellectual imaginary characters, let’s move on to a real person with a good, — nay, superb — memory. Jill Price, initially only known as “AJ,” was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now called highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition that only about 60 other people reportedly had. She could vividly recall and recount every single day of her life since she was 14! If you asked about a specific date, say August 29, 1980, she could reply in great detail: “It was a Friday, I went to Palm Springs with my friends, twins, Nina and Michelle, and their family for Labour Day weekend. And before we went to Palm Springs, we went to get them bikini waxes. They were screaming through the whole thing” (McRobbie, 2020). She, together with Bart Davis, narrated her unique and incredible story in the book The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science-A Memoir. According to Dr. James McGaugh, director of UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Price’s semantic memory, the ability to remember facts not directly linked to daily life, is mediocre. On the other hand, her episodic memory, remembering personal events and the emotions connected with them, is practically perfect. Imagine having a memory like that! However, Price disclosed, “Most have called it a gift but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy.” Undeniably, there are memories we’d rather forget, as one of the characters mentioned at the beginning of this post, Maxim de Winter, ascertained. William James, one of the founders of modern psychology said, “The peculiar mixture of forgetting with our remembering is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”
There’s still much more to say regarding this topic, but I think I’ve discussed it at length for now. I was pondering about cryptomnesia, why memory is unreliable/fallible, among other things. The human memory is so amazing, it’s futile to talk about it briefly. Plus, I’m no psychologist or neuroscientist. I’ll leave it to the experts.
Foer, J. (2006, April 28). Kaavya Syndrome. Slate Magazine. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://slate.com/technology/2006/04/no-one-has-a-photographic-memory.html
McRobbie, L. R. (2020, March 26). Total recall: the people who never forget. The Guardian. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/08/total-recall-the-people-who-never-forget
Shafy, S. (2008, November 21). a-72b95d25–0001–0001–0000–000000591972. DER SPIEGEL, Hamburg, Germany. Retrieved April 19, 2022, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/the-science-of-memory-an-infinite-loop-in-the-brain-a-591972.html
Taylor, A.K. (2013). Encyclopedia of Human Memory [3 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 1099. ISBN 978–1440800269. Retrieved April 19, 2022
Tyler, A. (2021, June 12). Sherlock’s Mind Palace Explained: Is it Really Possible? Screen Rant. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://screenrant.com/sherlock-holmes-show-mind-palace-explained/
Ye, Y. (n.d.). Photographic memory. New Scientist. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.newscientist.com/definition/photographic-memory/