Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) Comes With Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies

The phenomenon of highly superior autobiographical memory -- first documented in 2006 by UCI neurobiologist James McGaugh and colleagues in a woman identified as "AJ" -- has been profiled on CBS's "60 Minutes" and in hundreds of other media outlets. But a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Neurobiology of Learning & Memory's July issue offers the first scientific findings about nearly a dozen people with this uncanny ability.

All had variations in nine structures of their brains compared to those of control subjects, including more robust white matter linking the middle and front parts. Most of the differences were in areas known to be linked to autobiographical memory, "so we're getting a descriptive, coherent story of what's going on," said lead author Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

Surprisingly, the people with stellar autobiographical memory did not score higher on routine laboratory memory tests or when asked to use rote memory aids. Yet when it came to public or private events that occurred after age 10½, "they were remarkably better at recalling the details of their lives," said McGaugh, senior author on the new work.

"These are not memory experts across the board. They're 180 degrees different from the usual memory champions who can memorize pi to a large degree or other long strings of numbers," LePort noted. "It makes the project that much more interesting; it really shows we are homing in on a specific form of memory."

She said interviewing the subjects was "baffling. You give them a date, and their response is immediate. The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don't even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they're 99 percent accurate. It never gets old."

The study also found statistically significant evidence of obsessive-compulsive tendencies among the group [...]. Many of the individuals have large, minutely catalogued collections of some sort, such as magazines, videos, shoes, stamps or postcards.


Journal Reference:

1 Aurora K.R. LePort, Aaron T. Mattfeld, Heather Dickinson-Anson, James H. Fallon, Craig E.L. Stark, Frithjof Kruggel, Larry Cahill, James L. McGaugh. Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2012; 98 (1): 78 DOI: 10.1016/j.nlm.2012.05.002

from "Brains Are Different in People With Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory"

Quoted on Tue Jul 31st, 2012