MY EX­TREMELY POW­ER­FUL MEM­ORY

Can you re­mem­ber what you were do­ing on any given date ten years ago?

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - CLAIRE NOWAK

MARKIE PASTER­NAK re­mem­bers ex­actly when she re­alised her brain was dif­fer­ent. It was Tues­day, Au­gust 26, 2014, the be­gin­ning of her third year at Mar­quette Univer­sity, in Wis­con­sin, in the US. She sat in a class called Learn­ing and Mem­ory, a psy­chol­ogy course that cov­ered how peo­ple learn and the dif­fer­ent types of mem­ory.

The pro­fes­sor, Dr Kristy Niel­son, stood at the front of the class­room, go­ing over the syl­labus for the se­mes­ter. She said if the class com­pleted the re­quired ma­te­rial, they would get into ‘the fun stuff ’. That meant dis­cussing peo­ple with ab­nor­mally im­pres­sive mem­o­ries, who can play mu­sic com­pletely by mem­ory or

map out an en­tire city af­ter see­ing it only once. They might even study a rel­a­tively new sub­ject in the field of psy­chol­ogy: peo­ple who are able to re­mem­ber every day of their lives.

That’s me, Paster­nak thought. I can do that.

Paster­nak, now 23, is cur­rently one of the youngest peo­ple with Highly Su­pe­rior Au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal Mem­ory (HSAM), a rare con­di­tion that only around 60 peo­ple in the world are known to have. Give her any date be­tween 2005 and the present day, and she will tell you what day of the week it was and ev­ery­thing she did that day in ex­tra­or­di­nary de­tail. On De­cem­ber 11, 2006, her dad got dis­tracted watch­ing the Chicago Bears play Mon­day Night Foot­ball and ac­ci­den­tally cut off the top of their Christ­mas tree in­stead of the stump. On that day in 2009 ( a Fri­day), she chap­er­oned a school dance and then went on a date with a guy she had started see­ing two days ear­lier. But be­fore that psy­chol­ogy class, she and those with knowl­edge of her abil­ity only knew it as “the fun trick Markie can do”.

“I asked my high school psy­chol­ogy teacher [if she knew any­thing about my mem­ory] … and she didn’t know,” Paster­nak says. “She just thought it’d be cool if I went on David Let­ter­man.”

Re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Irvine re­ported the first­known case of HSAM in 2006 and have been fur­ther study­ing it since. When a po­ten­tial HSAMer is iden­ti­fied, re­searchers con­duct a two-part test to conf irm the di­ag­no­sis. First, they pro­vide sev­eral dates (say, June 25, 2009) and pa r t ic i pa nt s must re­call what ma­jor cur­rent event took place each day (that was a Thurs­day, and that’s when Michael Jack­son died). If they pass that test, they move onto the sec­ond. A gen­er­a­tor spits out ten ran­dom dates, and par­tic­i­pants must name the day of the week, ver­i­fi­able events that oc­curred that day, and other de­scrip­tors like what the weather was like.

Upon the rec­om­men­da­tion of her pro­fes­sor, Paster­nak took the tests over the phone on Mon­day, March 9, 2015. She got 9 out of 10, the av­er­age score for peo­ple with HSAM. The av­er­age score for those with­out HSAM is 2 out of 10.

Peo­ple who have HSAM have dif­fer­ent means of re­call­ing dates. Paster­nak de­scribes her mem­ory

like a board from the board game Candy Land. In her mind, she sees each month as a dif­fer­ent coloured square; June is green, Au­gust is golden yel­low, Novem­ber is dark red. The months con­nect to form a path, weav­ing back to Fe­bru­ary 2005, when she had her first HSAM mem­ory.

Once she finds the right month in the right year, she ‘ zooms into’ the square and vi­su­alises each week as a seven-piece pie chart. To fig­ure out the day of the week, she starts with a ‘go- to’ date that she knows es­pe­cially well. For in­stance, if you ask her about Fe­bruar y 17, 2011, she’ll first re­call Fe­bru­ary 14, 2011, a Mon­day.

“I know that one be­cause of Valen­tine’s Day,” she ex­plains. “I know who I was with on that Valen­tine’s Day and what hap­pened, and then I can kind of piece it to­gether. Now I re­mem­ber what hap­pened on that Tues­day and Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day.”

It takes time to re­call those mem­o­ries, but even­tu­ally, she can re­mem­ber events down to the hour. “I can’t just mem­o­rise things,” she says. “That’s not how it works. I have to see it. I have to be there. I have to live it, or it doesn’t af­fect me.”

Hence, the spec­i­fi­ca­tion of ‘au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal’ mem­ory. Those with HSAM aren’t able to re­call cur­rent events that they didn’t per­son­ally hear about or ex­pe­ri­ence. Paster­nak knows singer Tom Petty died on Oc­to­ber 2, 2017, but she as­so­ciates his death with Oc­to­ber 3, the day she found out and sub­se­quently lis­tened to ‘Among the Wild­flow­ers’ and ‘Free Fallin’ ’ on re­peat.

Pa s t er na k pa rtic­i­pates in stud­ies, onl ine sur­veys and phone i nter v iews with the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia- ­Irvine re­search team a few times a year. In do­ing so, she learns more about the con­di­tion and meets oth­ers who have the same abil­i­ties. But per­haps most im­por­tantly, it gives her a pur­pose to what she long thought was a use­less tal­ent. Re­searchers be­lieve peo­ple with HSAM have the ex­treme op­po­site of Alzheimer’s, and un­cov­er­ing what is bi­o­log­i­cally dif­fer­ent about HSAM brains could help treat Alzheimer’s, de­pres­sion and other men­tal health is­sues.

“It makes me so glad that I fig­ured out I have [HSAM],” she says, “so I can help con­tribute to this grow­ing body of re­search that has the po­ten­tial to change lives.”

Those with HSAM aren’t able to re­call cur­rent events that they didn’t per­son­ally hear about or ex­pe­ri­ence

Su­pe­rior mem­ory: Markie Paster­nak

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