ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Most of the time, when we talk about forgetting, we talk about how bad that is. We scold ourselves for not being able to remember names or appointments, and we mourn the fact that the people we love are losing their memory. Well, NPR's Alix Spiegel wanted to get a different view of forgetting.
She wanted to see what it could be like if you had the opposite problem and couldn't forget. To find out, she went to talk to people with what's called highly superior autobiographical memory.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: On August 2nd of this past year, Alexandra Wolff made a quick stop at the Target near her house to pick up some groceries. You've probably made a stop like this over the last year. You've probably made dozens of them. The difference between you and Wolff is that she can remember every one. For instance, can remember every detail of that totally insignificant stop she made on August 2nd, down to each of the items she placed in her shopping cart.
ALEXANDRA WOLFF: Target brand Raisin Bran, Simply Orange orange juice, Ensure, grapes, Cheezits and strawberries.
SPIEGEL: Wolff has highly superior autobiographical memory and so she remembers what happened to her and what she did every day of the last year, what she wore and ate at every meal, the strangers she passed on the street.
WOLFF: I mean, I can even - if you take me back a year ago today, I can even remember if the fan in the bedroom was on or not. I mean, that's how detailed I can remember it.
SPIEGEL: Researchers have identified 55 people in the U.S. with this kind of memory for autobiographical information. And though it's not clear why their brains do what they do, what is clear is that this ability gives them an access to the past that's profoundly different from you or me. Wolff says that for her, remembering even an inconsequential trip to the Target is an almost physical experience.
She sees what she saw that day, she hears what she heard that day, and she feels the emotions that she felt at the time.
WOLFF: Even sometimes down to getting sick to my stomach or getting a headache.
SPIEGEL: It's just right there as if you were there.
WOLFF: Right. It's almost like time travel.
SPIEGEL: So what's it like when you don't forget? How does having this kind of access to the past affect your relationship with the present? Wolff says that for her, it's been challenging.
WOLFF: It seems like you hold onto everything, and it seems like you're just stuck in the past all the time and it's hard to get other people to understand it.
SPIEGEL: For one, Wolff says that in her life there are no fresh days, no clean slates without associations because every morning when she wakes up, on some level, scrolling through her mind are all of the experiences of that date from years before, experiences that can profoundly affect the new day she's in.
For example, the day before we spoke, Alexandra said, was a day that years ago in middle school she'd been bullied by a boy in one of her classes.
WOLFF: I didn't mention it to anyone. I didn't mention it to my mom. I didn't mention it to any friends that I was talking to but, I mean, still in the back of my mind I kept thinking about it and it made me feel - it knocked some of my confidence down.
SPIEGEL: But also, because the past is so viscerally right there, so available, she finds that when the present gets overwhelming, it's hard not to retreat there. Even though she's only 22, she says she spends huge amounts of time in her room with her eyes closed, reliving the past in her mind, particularly this one day when she was a kid.
WOLFF: July 8th, 2004.
SPIEGEL: She spent that day in a bathing suit by a pool laughing and playing with her 10-year-old cousin. They ate macaroni and cheese, they swam. It was an easy, innocent time. And so in the evenings after work, she says that she relives every detail of that day again and again. She says she probably relives it at least four times a week.
How many hours of your life do you think you've spent reliving that day?
WOLFF: Maybe a thousand to 2,000. I mean, I definitely say it's a huge temptation. I could, if I didn't have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7.
JAMES MCGAUGH: It has long been believed by research scientists that forgetting is adaptive.
SPIEGEL: That's James McGaugh, the neurobiologist who first documented this phenomenon. He discovered it by accident, got an email out of the blue from this woman named Jill Price who said she had a serious memory problem: She couldn't seem to forget anything, and like Wolff, it really bothered her.
MCGAUGH: 'Cause the emotion that's evoked by remembering bad things troubled her.
SPIEGEL: So McGaugh started studying first Price and then others with this kind of memory and ultimately found that there are differences in the brains of people like Wolff. It's just not clear if those differences are the cause or the consequence of the ability. But it is the forgetting, in particular, in their brains that's different.
That is, if you were asked to recall what happened to you earlier this morning, you'd remember roughly the same amount as someone like Wolff. It's just that if you were asked about this morning three months from now, for you it would probably be gone, while for her it's as fresh as it is for you today.
MCGAUGH: So that it is not that they're superior learners, they are very poor at forgetting.
SPIEGEL: In terms of how this inability to forget emotionally effects people, McGaugh says it hasn't been studied by him or by anyone, but he gets the sense that it varies. Some can enjoy it, others find it torture.
MCGAUGH: The effect of having this ability depends upon the kind of experiences people have had in the past as well as their present circumstances.
SPIEGEL: Still, for this story, I was in touch with about 10 people with this ability and heard from several who'd been in touch with most of the group through Facebook or through meetings that almost all of them seemed to have struggled with depression.
SIEGEL: Also, apparently relatively few in the group have been able to maintain marriages. My contacts told me only 2 out of the 55. And McGaugh says he can see that.
MCGAUGH: It is difficult, both on the, let's say, on the humorous side and on the serious side. The humorous side is that you can imagine dealing with somebody who has a very strong autobiographical memory to be around the person like that all the time and always be corrected by them.
Oh, isn't this a nice restaurant. We were here two weeks ago. Oh, no, no, it was four weeks ago.
SPIEGEL: And then, there's the serious side.
BILL BROWN: Because not only do I remember where people have wronged me, I remember where I've wronged them.
SPIEGEL: Bill Brown's another person with highly superior memory.
BROWN: And there are times it would nice that you could forget even what you've done.
SPIEGEL: Now, Bill Brown is a pretty jolly guy who seems at peace with his inability to forget, but says that for him, it hasn't always been so easy. For most of his life, he tells me, he struggled with depression. He's had nine different psychiatrists. But over the years, he says he's learned to manage his memory.
BROWN: You kind of have to make a conscious choice to use it in the positive way and not dwell on the negative.
SPIEGEL: For instance, when Brown is overwhelmed by a memory in the morning, as Wolff talked about, he does something that he calls spring-boarding.
BROWN: Spring-boarding would be that you have a day that's bad, that has been across your life, it seems, either a bad day or more bad days than good. You spring-board to - it may be the next day on the calendar, it may be a week later, it may be a day later, maybe months later.
SPIEGEL: In his mind, he consciously switches out the memory of bad for good and plays the good over and over and over in his head, blocking out the bad. Wolff says she doesn't have this ability. She has no control over what comes or when it comes, but eventually hopes to find a way around her inability to forget so that she can live more fully in the present.
WOLFF: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, it's too much to miss out on, living in the past.
SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.