The Boy Who Can’t Forget

Channel 4 programme featuring photographic memory

Channel 4 documentary – The Boy Who Can’t Forget

On 25 September 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called “The Boy Who Can’t Forget”, about individuals with photographic memory. It focused mainly on Aurelian, a young Welshman, who has what has become known as superior autobiographical memory, or an eidetic memory. It’s also technically known as hyperthymesia, and it means that the person who has this unusual ability can recall details of virtually every day of their lives. As long as it’s happened to them, or they have somehow become aware of it, they don’t forget it … ever!

Aurelian, the 'boy who can't forget' - photographic memory

Aurelian, the ‘boy’ who can recall virtually every day of his life, in the greatest detail

As well as the ‘interesting stuff’, he’ll be able to tell you what the weather was like that day, and what he had for dinner. If you have any interest at all in memory improvement, you’d find this documentary riveting.

Aurelian is the first British male known to have a photographic memory, and one of only a few known worldwide. In fact, his family only found out he had an eidetic memory quite recently, and are still surprised that he can do amazing things, like instantly putting the correct day of the week to any date, and reeling off things that happened on that day. He can do this for virtually any day from his past.

In fact, he remembers virtually every day of his life, as though it’s all been catalogued and diarised.

A visit with Dominic O’Brien – a meeting of minds!

In the programme, we saw Aurelian visit Dominic O’Brien, many times World Memory Champion, who was astounded at the mind power his abilities demonstrates. While Dominic’s memory abilities are astounding, he has never claimed to have a photographic memory – his skill comes from learning and applying memory techniques, and regular practice to achieve memory improvement.

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He said he’d never met anyone who could do the things Aurelian does. When he demonstrated that he could recall details of random dates, O’Brien said he could probably do the same, but the difference is that he would have to review each day in the evening, and then review it again the following day, and the day after, and the next week, till he’d ‘got it’. In other words, he would be using very specific memory techniques.

This isn’t what Aurelian does. As he describes it, it’s like there’s a pen constantly writing in his head and it carries on annotating facts, and the document just never gets erased. It’s not so much that he’s remembering really well, he’s simply not forgetting! Ever!

Aurelian is a very visual person. His bedroom walls are covered with photographs, and he habitually takes photos all the time. He loves the fact that they are permanent records of things, almost literally memories put into physical form. When he was asked about dates in a particular month, he started noting down events that he recalled on specific days, on a calendar. Before he’d finished, every date on the calendar was filled in with his notes. And some things that could be checked (such as things that were on TV) were checked and verified.

If there is such a thing as a photographic memory, then Aurelian has one!

Jill Price, first of a ‘new breed’

Jill Price - photographic memory

Jill Price, the first case of eidetic memory
studied by Dr. James L McGaugh

Another person with this unusual and amazing ability, Jill Price, was also interviewed for the documentary. Hers was the first case of an eidetic memory (photographic memory) that came to light, and she was (and still is) studied by Dr. James L. McGaugh, professor of neurobiology, who has been trying for decades to get to the bottom of how memory actually works.

Jill Price sees her ability more as a curse than a blessing, and she has no special interest in memory improvement. She can’t forget all the details of the conflicts and wars throughout the years, and, on a personal level, the relationship troubles and arguments that the rest of us can leave in the past. It’s all as fresh today as if it’s just happened. That’s the curse of having a photographic memory, something we all wish we had, but it seems we would probably change our views if it came true.

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When she was being interviewed, some time ago, on U.S. TV, she was being checked on her ability to pin down certain events to particular days. It showed the time the interviewer picked her up on a date and said she’d got it wrong (because she was checking in a 4-inch thick almanac open in front of her). Jill insisted she was right, and while the interviewer was still telling her she’d messed up, someone from the control room burst in and told her they’d double-checked and the book was wrong!

Ten more with the power!

After Jill’s interview, incredibly, ten more people with this astonishing ability came to light. For whatever reason, it seems, these people kept their photographic memory skills more or less secret. Maybe they were afraid of the way they’d be viewed if they ‘came out’. As Jill Price said, if you could see all the stuff that’s constantly flashing up in her head, ‘you’d freak out!’

Watching her, it was impossible to imagine she was trying to claim these skills for attention; she was quite obviously suffering as a result of her photographic memory and would have preferred to be ‘normal’, given the choice.

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It was interesting to see some of Jill’s notes. She keeps a diary, of sorts, and it’s incredibly complex. The pages are literally crammed, edge to edge, with closely written, tiny words, and look, frankly, unintelligible. Maybe this is the kind of thing that one psychologist, Gary Marcus, had in mind when he said, in an article, that the reason she had such an amazing memory was that she was incredibly self-obsessed and just fascinated by her own life.

Jill took offence at this, as she maintains that she is in no way self-obsessed. The reason she keeps the notes (which she says she never reads and never reviews) is simply to get it all out of her head.

Phenomenal memory powers

An utterly fascinating documentary, and one which gave some insights into the phenomenal powers some people have, without actually coming to any definite conclusions. It does seem to be the case that the visual parts of the brain are very active in people with this ability (these particular areas ‘lit up’ strikingly, during a fMRI scan of Aurelian’s brain), and Aurelian seems almost obsessed with photographing even the mundane.

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I suppose it highlights the fact that to memorise successfully, you have to visualise clearly. You have to see the thing vividly in your mind in order to store it there. And you have to pay attention to it. Not slavishly (Aurelian, for example, didn’t seem to use any memory techniques to recall specific dates, he just remembered them … somehow) – but without attention, how can your brain store facts it’s barely become acquainted with?

One of the ‘tricks’ of the brain, if you like, is to rate things in terms of importance. Those things that don’t reach a certain level of importance are more or less ignored, and won’t be remembered (unless, of course, we do something to achieve memory improvement). This is a skill in itself, this forgetting, and for a good reason – if we tried to remember literally everything ‘we’d freak out’, in Jill Price’s words.

Maybe what’s going on there, then, is that these people’s brains have simply not mastered this ‘trick’. Maybe they don’t know one thing from another, when it comes to assigning importance to them, and so their brains just go ahead and remember everything. Maybe this is the way we could all be … maybe even should all be … as long as keeping all that ‘stuff’ in our heads didn’t freak us out.

The next stage in the mind power evolution?

And maybe these unusual people, through the mind power they display, have dispensed with this ‘trick’ of forgetting, because their brains are able to handle the stress of coping with a monumental amount of data. Maybe, for all we know, they are on the leading edge of the next stage of our evolution. Perhaps our brains are developing to the stage where they can, in fact, cope with storing infinite amounts of data without ‘crashing’ … who knows?

Maybe this is evidence of a general (if presently isolated) increase in the mind power of the human race? It practically puts the whole subject of memory improvement in the shade – although for us ‘lesser mortals’, that still remains the only way to go, since we don’t have the ‘gift’ of photographic memory … or should that be ‘curse’?

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