Monday, 23 January 2012

How it began

Ah yes. I remember it well. Except I don't. The past is a mish-mash of events, feelings, people and places. Some dates are anchors. Some years have a sense to them. But if you asked me what I was doing this day last week, or last month, I may struggle. When did we last come to this restaurant? When did we see this film? I'm searching blindly in a whiteout, hoping to find something solid - and so relieved when I do.

Then I read an article about someone with hyperthymesia. It appeared on 2 December 2011 in The Guardian (I had to look it up, because this was before). It was on the "Experience" page in the magazine and headed: "I remember every day of my life". The author, Brad Williams, opened:

"I can pick a date from the past 53 years and know instantly where I was, what happened in the news and even the day of the week. I've been able to do this since I was four. It's not a memory trick and I don't rely on mnemonics; I can just remember things from 10 years ago as easily as recalling what I had for breakfast."

Apparently there are few people who are recognised as having hyperhmesia. Some say it is torment, though Brad said: "I never feel overwhelmed with the amount of information my brain absorbs. My mind seems to be able to cope and the information is stored away neatly."

What I took from the article was the thought that perhaps my brain did have the capacity to remember. My memory was not almost full and having to let things slip to fit in something new. It was only a case of remembering.

I began on 17 December. I was late reading the article as I was having a hectic time moving city with my wife. This day I decided I would remember, and every day going forward. Brad said: "I first remember linking a date with a memory on my fourth birthday. After that, if I wanted to remember what day something happened on, I would visualise a calendar of that year and literally check it in my mind's eye."

The 17th of December was a Saturday. We met up with friends who lived where we were going to set up home; it was somewhere we had lived before. This being the lead up to Christmas, we went to an out-of-town garden centre, which had a good gift section and a café, then went on to the next town to some other shops. Sitting in the café is the image pinned to my mental calendar for that day. I don't remember the whole day like a film, but I can remember lots of the details and conversation.

Those details don't matter. What matters is I can remember what happened on 17 December. At least, what is important to me for that date. And so it goes on.

18 December: listening to the carol singers gathered by the market on a cold Sunday. That's the image on my calendar. I can tell you we went to my wife's church beforehand and returned for the carol service there, which began at 5 pm.

19 December: I took mince pies into the office where I am working, and heated them with custard for the other staff.

20 December: We left our temporary accommodation and travelled to my folks for Christmas.

21 December: We took my parents and niece into town for Christmas shopping.

Each image triggers an association with other things that happened that day. Some things I don't remember, such as what I had for breakfast and dinner. Some meals I recall. I don't remember news events, though I can tell you that it was Friday 13 January when 9 Eurozone countries were downgraded by ratings agencies. Generally my memory pegs are not news events. But they could be - they are - when I choose.

Yesterday, 22 January, my memory peg is running along the river near the flat we have moved into, reaching the footbridge for the first time - and going to see The Artist in the afternoon. That's two images I want to associate with this day. I hope to remember when I first ran to that bridge. I hope I will be able to answer the question, "Did you see the film 'The Artist'" by saying, "Yes, on the 22nd of January 2012", not just to show off this memory skill (if I can keep it up), but so that film reminds me of sitting in the crowded cinema with my wife, with aching legs.

So already there is a richness, a clarity from remembering.

It is not as easy as pinning the image to my mental calendar as a memory tag. There are some other techniques I am finding work. How well they will cope as the months pile up remains to be seen.

How the future will be influenced by a past I remember more clearly is to be discovered.

And how to fill the blanks on my calendar before I began to remember, white days that taunt me as if they were unlived, and how to pin floating memories to a time and a context, is something I want to explore.

3 comments:

  1. Hello! I am starting follow your website and i working on a personal project of the same nature. I think is possible get hyperthymesia by mnemotecnia and space repetitión(under free software called ANKI) i like your pegsystem for calendrical memory.

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  2. It's a fascinating project. I'm reminded of an experiment reported in Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds where taking just a few seconds to write down the good things that happened on a particular day significantly increases one's happiness. Doing it purely in the mind with a mnemonic strategy is a cool step up.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Anthony. That is an interesting finding, which I can relate to. Sometimes when I go through the reviews of selected past images (as described on the 'refresh technique' link under 'about me'), I'll try to focus on a particular aspect, not just the image and events in themselves. For example, if I am feeling depressed or stressed, then in my review I'll take particular note of happy days or past times when I was faced with a difficulty that either passed or was dealt with. If I'm apart from my wife, which sometimes happens as we are from different countries, I might focus more on memories of her in the reviews.

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