By Mike Nettleton
The other morning at the gym, I was watching the Today show on one of the overhead flat screens they provide. Since my I-pod was pumping Sly and the Family Stone into my headphones (boom, shakka lakka lakka, boom shakka lakka lakka boom), I had to follow the show with the text crawl on the bottom of the screen. Mental multi-tasking as it were. (Since the young thing with the dreadlocks on the elliptical was wearing an interesting new leotard, it moved the degree of difficulty into the stratosphere.)
Featured were a gaggle of Hyperthymesiacs, including the actress Marilu Henner. Hyperthymesia, as it turns out, is the condition of possessing an extremely detailed autobiographical memory. These folks, ranging in age from about 10 through serious geezerage can bring back specific memories the way we…the way we…uh, can’t.
They gave the ten-year old a date, say July 17, 2010 and asked him what day of the week it was. He knew instantly that it was a Tuesday (random example), could tell you what he wore and what he did that day. In great detail.
If hard pressed, and after due deliberation, if someone asked me what I wore yesterday, I could probably come up with “clothes.”
Apparently the Hyperthymesiacs have the ability to instantly retrieve stuff from the part of the brain that stores memories. We all have that stuff stashed in there, but most of us can only bring back small percentages of it. Some of us go in looking for it and need help finding our way back out.
Memory is tricky. While I can memorize my lines for a play I’m performing in and recite them at the proper times, there is almost always one word or short phrase that hovers at the doorway to consciousness and refuses to enter, no matter how often it’s invited. At those times I rely on a mystical and ages old actor’s technique. I say something else. Trying of course to keep it near the topic at hand. For example, if my line, as Christopher in “Shadowlands” is supposed to come out “Congratulations, Jack, you seem to have found a soul mate,” and I couldn’t retrieve “soul mate” from the vaults, it would probably be detrimental to the show if I substituted “female praying mantis.” But, if I inserted “Interesting match,” no one would notice.
Once, when living in Eugene, a man of about my age bustled over to my aisle in the supermarket and started telling stories of things we had done together in college. (Several might still involve outstanding warrants in Jackson County.) As he told the stories, with my bemused wife standing by watching, I simply nodded and smiled. After he wound down, he shook my hand, told me how great it was to see me again and hurried off.
“Who was that?” My mate asked.
I shrugged. “No clue.” I admitted.
“Did any or all of those things actually happen?” She reached up for something on the shelf and put it in the cart.
“Possibly,” I said. “The part where everybody at the party took off their clothes and sang boom shakka lakka lakka, boom shakka lakka lakka, boom, sounded vaguely familiar.