During the extra time afforded to me during my pandemic-induced work release, Lady Jane and I played the name-that-trip photo game.
In case you missed the longer explanation last month, I’ll provide an abridged one by simply saying I dumped several hundred photos from over 20 years’ worth of our shared trips in an old zippered work bag, and we took turns blindly pulling out a photo and showing it to the other to see if the trip could be identified.
The game prompted memories, all of which, of course, were pleasant ones. After all, if you don’t have pleasant memories of your vacations, well, you’re just not very good at this whole travel thing.
When it comes to what we remember, neurobiologists have spent considerable time researching our various types of memories. One of the first to which we’re exposed is mnemonic memory, which comes into play whenever we use those little techniques to remember information. When that little elementary schooler is told by the art teacher to remember the name “Roy G. Biv” to recall the colors of the spectrum — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — the little tyke is using his mnemonic memory.
Back in my attention-deficit childhood long before there was such a diagnosis, within the sandstone walls of St. Charles, I was introduced to my mnemonic-memory capabilities often when serving out my punishment for my near-daily misdeeds. The Good Sisters of Charity would have me fill up notebook page after notebook page following the 3 o’clock dismissal bell with the times tables all the way through 12-times-12. While it didn’t really do much to improve my behavior, it did turn me into one of the foremost times-tables authorities of my time.
According to Susan York Morris in her article on memory published on the website Healthline, our flashbulb memories are extremely vivid recollections of moments in time, such as recalling precisely where we were and what we were doing when a moment of great import occurred.
It’s my flashbulb memory that easily transports me back to Nov. 22, 1963, in the early in the afternoon. That’s when a PA announcement came on, one delivered by Principal Sister Edward, who told the school that our Roman Catholic president was dead as I sat in the library with a couple of my 12-year-old mates looking at an anatomy book, not because any of us had any clinical interest in science but to see if perhaps there just might be a naughty illustration or two therein.
Of the types of memories of which Morris wrote, the one that fascinated me was one researchers back in 2006 at the University of California-Irvine first called “hyperthymesia.” The term was used to identify the remarkable memory of Jill Price when it was discovered she possessed the uncanny ability to recall with great specificity the events of pretty much all her past days going all the way back to childhood.
Nowadays the more common term used for Price and around 60 other individuals who have been identified as having these types of acute memories is HSAM, an acronym for “highly superior autobiographical memory.” Now, for all of us, our initial experiences are stored in our short-term memory, but for significant ones, say, our first kiss or first job interview, those very well become a part of our long-term memory if they are important enough to us.
As for me, I really don’t recall any specifics about that first job interview, but that first kiss was planted on a girl named Lisa Dock, and it occurred on a trail on a wooded hill at Faurot Park just northwest of what we all called Skate Lake back when winters were cold enough to freeze that pond off North Shore Drive. However, were I to have HSAM, not only would I remember the girl and the location of that first smooch, but I could also remember the date, the day of the week and the time and perhaps even what I had for breakfast.
Initially, when I became aware of HSAM, I’ll admit I was more than a little envious of those 60 or so folks. I’ve so often been disappointed in myself for my mental lapses, especially when I can’t recall the name of someone I should know when I see them unexpectedly in the salty-snacks aisle at Meijer or what the name of the musical group was that sang “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
However, the more I thought about it, the less I envied those with such acute autobiographical recall. While they can remember with unadulterated clarity, say, every person they’ve met and the date they first heard the Baha Men sing that musical question about those loosed canines and also every one of their pleasant vacation memories, there’s another side to that memory coin.
They also must have equal crystal-clear recall of every one of their painful experiences as well. Like the rest of the family of man and woman, I’ve had my share of panic-stricken and profoundly painful moments, those moments of utter despair when I never thought I could comprehend long division at St. Charles or calculus at LCC. And, of course, there have been some crushing moments romantically forced upon me that I had to surmount.
Employing the classic rhetorical question, would I want to dwell on those times and recall every edge and corner of the cerebral rooms I’ve trained myself not to enter? Perhaps Streisand articulated it best in her song “The Way We Were.”
“What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” And, I’m guessing that’s a near impossibility for those with HSAM.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.