If you ask most people about their first memory, they will give a vague answer about an early birthday party or some mildly traumatic childhood experience. It will be filled with cliches and is probably completely inaccurate.
That’s just the way human memory works, it tends to fade over time. The few memories we do hold from childhood are not reliable. The number of phenomena which skew our memory when remembering past events make it kind of amazing we are even trusted in such official practices as legal process.
But this isn’t the case for Rebecca Sharrock, who has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (or HSAM), an extremely rare condition which enables a person to recall all or most of their lifetime in ‘precise detail’.
Rebecca is able to recall every single day of her life since being a newborn child. She can recall every dream she ever experiences and can re-experience pain and re-taste food.
She spoke to UNILAD about how HSAM affects her life, telling us about her first memories:
“I’m very glad that I don’t recall the experience of actually being born. Yet as my recollections are in chronological order I know that they go back to before I was 12 days old. This was because I remember the experience of having a photo taken of me laid down on the front car seat, which was dated December 23rd 1989.
There are recollections prior to then which were of me in a crib of some sort (perhaps also in the hospital). When I was in my bedroom though, I was fascinated by the stand up fan next to me, yet hadn’t developed the urge to get up and explore what it could be.”
Rebecca told us that at such a young age, thought as we know it is still very much the same, though without the language used as a tool to reason. She said the main differences in her thought as a young child were that she was far more curious and attentive than she is now.
Rebecca’s first thought was the realisation that crying loudly would result in food being brought to her by her mother. Before then, Rebecca would only cry out of distress or confusion – this quickly changed when she realised she could get some food out of it!
HSAM is effectively ‘total recall’, where the mind can recall any personal memory at will. It is extremely rare, with fewer than 100 people in the entire world with an official diagnosis of the condition.
The first ever diagnosis was Jill Price, who could remember everything from when she was 14 years old. The causes of Jill’s – and subsequently other people with the condition – is currently unknown, with many different theses speculating about why these people can remember their lives with such intricate detail.
What we do know, is that memory is controlled by the activity of the amygdala, which operates when we experience something stressful (positively or negatively) to tell the brain this incident is of particular importance.
Other than that, there really is no science which can explain HSAM, or how people come to develop it.
Also worth noting is the fact memories of those with HSAM are only superior when it comes to personal events, not with other details.
Rebecca’s memory is not a photographic memory like Mike from Suits, nor is it a mind palace like Sherlock’s, but something just as selective as our own – just better at recalling what it stores.
For example, Rebecca’s fondest memories are of childhood birthdays and Christmases as she grew up. From these memories there will be few things (if any) she can’t recall, but show her a random series of words and ask her to recite them – she’d probably fair no better than average.
But her memories give us a unique insight into what it means to grow up from such a young age. Take the example of self-awareness for example. Rebecca told us:
“From the beginning I was very tuned in to my own feelings and attaining the needs that I wanted. Until the age of three I viewed myself as the one who the world revolved around.
This is only because I only ever perceived the world through my own eyes and senses. Yet as I grew into a young child I began to understand that I (like everyone else) was a person, and that I was a stranger to most. This I feel had a lot to do with starting daycare and interacting with other children my age.”
Rebecca, who lives in Queensland, talks on dealing with HSAM and the other conditions she deals with every day.
She has a book called Streams of Memories which talks about the medical side of HSAM and is in the process of writing a book – My Life Is A Puzzle – which will include all of her life experiences.
Rebecca’s life is a bit of a puzzle, if what she’s told us is anything to go by. She not only has HSAM, but autism and anxiety. More than this, along with the recollection of the memories, comes the accompanying emotions with the memories.
“This creates much confusion in my life. When I relive a memory my emotions and perspective return back to however old I was at the time of the memory’s formation.
Yet my conscience and reasoning remain at an adult level. That’s what confuses me the most. I also re-feel pain and re-taste food.”
Despite these obstacles in her life, Rebecca makes the most of her experiences in the present, which has been a notable difficulty for many with HSAM.
Some people with the condition have labelled it a ‘burden’ for having to simultaneously live in the present and in the past at the same time.
Rebecca is remarkably open about her life experiences and regularly answers questions from the curious on Twitter, and attends talks at various institutions explaining her life experiences as the world tries to learn more about the mysterious condition which has made her completely extraordinary.