Are some people’s brains different?

Are some people’s brains, just … well … different?

Do some people have photographic memory?

Are some people’s brains physically different?

Research is still ongoing regarding superior autobiographical memory. That is, people who have what can probably best be described as a photographic memory.

These rare individuals can recall events, even the most mundane, of virtually every day of their lives, and while most of us struggle to remember what we we doing on a particular day last week, they can reel off details of any specific day going back years, or even decades. And the details they can recall include such easily forgettable stuff as what they had for dinner that day, and what the weather was like.

Work by researchers at UC Irvine, seems to indicate that people with superior autobiographical memory might in fact have different brains, and be using different mental processes to the rest of us. Even memory experts, who use sometimes complicated and obscure memory techniques, cannot compare to the skills of people with a photographic memory, and yet these people aren’t using memory techniques, as such. They just have brains that are in some way different, and they use mental processes that the rest of us know nothing about.

Photographic memory

Dr. James L. McGaugh, professor of neurobiology, studying photographic memory

Dr. James L. McGaugh,
professor of neurobiology

Dr. James L. McGaugh, professor of neurobiology, senior author of the new work, says that although people with a photographic memory were remarkably good at recalling details of their own lives, their memory skills, as generally judged, were nothing special.

He has worked with Jill Price, the first of the ‘new breed’, those with superior autobiographical memory,

to come forward, and he is spearheading research into this most mysterious memory skill.

Jill Price, 'blessed' with a photographic memory

Jill Price, ‘blessed’ with a photographic memory

Lead author Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory was even more specific:

“These are not memory experts across the board. They’re 180 degrees different from the usual memory champions who can memorise pi to a large degree, or other long strings of numbers. It makes the project that much more interesting; it really shows we are homing in on a specific form of memory.”

LePort also admitted that interviewing these individuals with a photographic memory was strange, even stunning. She said it was baffling to her that they could immediately respond to specific dates and give remarkably detailed lists of things that were going on in their lives, as well as outside circumstances, world events and the like.

“The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don’t even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they’re 99 percent accurate. It never gets old,” she said.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Although it’s not known if it’s relevant, it seems also that most of the subjects have  OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) of one sort or another. They tend to be collectors, whether of magazines, or DVDs, or ephemera, or whatever.

About 500 people responded to the researchers’ call for people with photographic memory, but only 33 have been confirmed up to now. A further 37 are still slated for investigation. The researchers want to go further though than just ‘collecting samples’. They want to uncover the mechanisms behind the phenomena, the memory techniques that allow people to memorise their entire lives, and without any apparent stuggle or strain.

“The next step is that we want to understand the mechanisms behind the memory,” LePort said. “Is it just the brain and the way its different structures are communicating? Maybe it’s genetic; maybe it’s molecular.”

And Dr McGaugh feels that they’re hot on the trail of something very special.

“We’re Sherlock Holmeses here. We’re searching for clues in a very new area of research,” he says.

‘Traditional’ memory techniques

Whatever they find, there’s a good chance it will be something completely new. Research seems to indicate that photographic memory owes little to the more traditional memory techniques we’re used to studying.

There is, it seems, something going on that’s entirely independent of any memory techniques anyone has yet come up with. What it is, and whether it can be tailored for the use of ‘ordinary people’ has yet to be discovered.


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