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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hyperthymesia


Hyperthymesia, also known as piking or hyperthymestic syndrome is a condition in which the individual possesses a superior autobiographical memory, meaning they can recall the vast majority of personal experiences and events in their lives. The term “hyperthymesia" is derived from the Greek words thymesis, meaning "remembering" and hyper meaning “excessive”.

As first described in a 2006 Neurocase article by Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, Dr. Paul Tejera, and James McGaugh, the two defining characteristics of hyperthymesia are "1) the person spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past, and 2) the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from his or her personal past".

Cases

Twenty cases of hyperthymesia have been confirmed thus far, the most famous of these being AJ (who later revealed her identity as Jill Price). Her case was originally reported by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James McGaugh, and is credited as being the first case of hyperthymesia. AJ can apparently recall every day of her life from when she was 14 years old: "Starting on February 5th, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday.

As the condition becomes better known, more and more people who claim to have hyperthymestic abilities are coming forward. In the aftermath of the 2006 Neurocase publication alone, more than 200 people contacted McGaugh; however only a handful of cases were determined to be actual cases of hyperthymesia. The second verified case was Brad Williams, the third was Rick Baron, and in 2009 Bob Petrella became the fourth person diagnosed with hyperthymestic syndrome. Unusually, all three men are left-handed.

On December 19, 2010, actress Marilu Henner was featured on 60 Minutes for her superior autobiographical memory ability. Henner claimed she can remember almost every day of her life since she was 11 years old. The show was initially pitched as a story featuring hyperthymestic violinist Louise Owen, but the reporter Lesley Stahl volunteered her friend Marilu Henner as having a similar ability.
Diagnosis

Parker and colleagues used a variety of standardised neuropsychological tests in their diagnosis of AJ’s hyperthymesia. These included tests of memory, lateralisation, executive functions, language, calculations, IQ, visual-spatial and visual-motor functions. They also devised novel tests to examine the extent of her memory abilities. These mostly consisted of questions pertaining to specific dates and events in history. Some of her personal recollections were verified with diary entries as well as by her mother.
Difficulties

Hyperthymestic abilities can have a detrimental effect on cognitive capacity. The constant, irrepressible stream of memories has caused significant disruption to AJ’s life. She described her recollection as "non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting" and as "a burden".[2] Like all hyperthymestics, AJ is prone to getting lost in remembering. This can make it difficult to attend to the present or future as she is permanently living in the past.

Surprisingly, AJ displays considerable difficulty in memorising allocentric information. "Her autobiographical memory, while incredible, is also selective and even ordinary in some respects," – McGaugh. This was demonstrated by AJ's poor performance on standardised memory tests. At school, AJ was an average student, clearly unable to apply her exceptional memory to her studies. Similar patterns have been observed in other cases of hyperthymesia.

Deficits in executive functioning and anomalous lateralisation were also identified in AJ. These cognitive deficiencies are characteristic of frontostriatal disorders.

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