What did you have for lunch? On Jan 5th 2004? 

As a specialist in Instructional Design, every so often something happens in the learning world that makes me sit up and think about the process of learning I have employed.

My thanks are due to Jessica Marshall, a science writer based in Saint Paul Minnesota, who in a recently published article highlighted me to some research into a fairly new condition known as ‘hyperthymestic syndrome’.  This syndrome is where people have an affliction of remembering everything.

Yes: an affliction? Trainers would love everyone to remember everything they say, but these poor people remember every detail of their life in extraordinary detail.

The most well know case is of a woman who is only known as AJ, mention any date back to the 1980’s and she can picture where she was, what she was doing, and what was in the news on that day. The problem she has, is one we never really consider, she does not know how to forget.

Research is being carried out on a number of subjects in California all suffering from the same issues. Initial tests have found that she was able to correctly identify the days and dates of every Easter for the last 24 years and exactly what she was doing on those dates. Results were verified against diaries she keeps.  Even worse for her she can also identify the day of the week for any date since 1980 and the correct dates for most unforgettable events such as the date of the ‘Who shot JR?’ episode of the TV soap Dallas.

The root of the issue appears to be in the way people with hyperthymestic syndrome encode the data they see and hear carrying out the tasks of encoding memory at a much higher level and in much more detail than most of us.

There are many items most of us just forget as we do not need them any longer, such as the phone number of the house you lived in 10 years ago, what you had for breakfast last Thursday etc.

What is interesting is the lifestyle and other comparisons these sufferers have, a number of the test group also have some form of obsessive disorder. More than one has a collection of TV guides going back many years and they also keep extraordinarily detailed diaries going back 30+years. So the questions being asked now is not if these people know how to encode the data more effectively than most but if they are just much better at recalling information.

Michael Anderson at the University of St Andrews has the opinion that AJ may actually have some disorder in unconscious control mechanisms that normally block the recovery of memory. This is a fascinating study that when they know more may open up so many channels for us to understand how people can control what they will or will not commit to long term memory…  or is everything is in long term memory and we just don’t know how to control the non-exclusion of this information.

We have spent much time working to improve our minds, the invention recently of the ‘Brain Game’ to keep our minds active is playing a big part in helping many improve performance and speed of using the brain.

Just remember that next time you can’t remember where you are supposed to be today, or what time your next appointment is, your brain may actually doing you a favour.

In the meantime for this group undergoing research it’s not learning how to remember, but learning how to forget.