Photographic memory

‘Photographic memory’ of an 18-year-old with memory loss

Rosie Paley has a 'photographic memory'

Rosie Paley with the memory board, complete with photographs, that helps her cope with her traumatic memory loss

Rosie Paley, 18, suffered traumatic memory loss due to a common infection, herpes simplex, which can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). She now has a ‘photographic memory’, in the sense that she needs to have photographs around to remind her of things she should remember anyway.

With her photos, she manages to ‘remember’ her earlier life and the friends she made growing up. Without them, she barely remembers, or even recognises, her own two brothers, Rhys (4) and two-year-old Ollie, and didn’t even recognise her own mother when she was first struck by the condition.

‘Photographic memory’
       – in the form of Rosie’s memory board

Rosie is training to be a hairdresser, but her memory loss means she has to use notes and lists to manage even the simplest tasks. In effect, she has ‘lost’ the first 16 years of her life (she was 16 when she got the infection that caused the problem). All the memories the rest of us take for granted about our lives have been erased, in her case.

“Looking back at pictures I can see I had an amazing childhood. I just wish I had memories to go with the pictures”

The pictures she’s referring to are photographs of family and friends, and events from her own past, that help her remember key events and people.

Positive attitude is the key

Her positive attitude helps her through what is an ongoing nightmare. “Life is now about making new memories,” she says, “It’s like I’m starting from the beginning”. Rosie, from Brierly Hill, Birmingham, can’t remember anything from before the infection took hold. The effects have been dramatic:

“I can’t remember anything from before I was ill,”she says. “I’ve lost all my childhood friends, as I can’t recognise them”.

Medical experts reckon there are something like 4,000 new cases of herpes simplex in the UK each year, the infection more usually responsible for cold sores and chicken pox. Obviously though, it doesn’t result in such traumatic consequences, except in very rare instances.

She didn’t even recognise her own mother

Rosie’s mother, Helen, says she was heartbroken when Rosie first woke up after the fit she suffered due to the infection, looked at her, and said “Who are you?” Rosie was upset and confused, and asked for her favourite cuddly toy, Baa Lamb, from when she was a little girl. It was one of the few things she could still remember.

“I surrounded her with things that might help her memory,” Helen says. “We even went to a Steps concert, as they were her favourite band, but she couldn’t recognise any of the songs”.

Today, two years after the illness that changed her life, Rosie is dependent on her ‘photographic memory’ board, dotted with pictures of family and friends, and events from her past.

“When I look at the photographs I see how happy I was, but it just draws a blank in my head”.

Never take your memory for granted

We all take our memory for granted, at least most of the time, and any thought of traumatic memory loss is just a nightmare that hasn’t happened yet. But the stark truth is it could happen to anyone, at any time, even through a simple infection like herpes simplex.

It’s highly unlikely that we should suffer such dramatic memory loss, of course, and we should be thankful for that. But the fact is that the brain is such a delicate organ, and easily affected. It’s sobering to reflect just how easily its priceless contents and abilities can be damaged, or even lost forever.

Perhaps we should be more grateful for the gift of memory, and less eager to complain if it doesn’t always perform perfectly and dependably, every single time. We all want to improve our memory, which is understandable (and would probably jump at the chance of having a photographic memory, if we could), but I guess the first step is to become fully aware what a wonderful gift it is, even in its present state.

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