David Payne: The boy who can’t forget

David PayneI have a good memory. Actually I’m being modest. I have an amazing memory, according to friends and family. 29 June 1974. A Saturday. I was eight. We went on holiday to Hopton-on-Sea. 1 September 1977, a Thursday. My first day at secondary school. There was a girl in my class called Sarah Lowe. She was 12 that day, the oldest child in our year.

If I met Sarah now I’d tell her I still remembered her birthday, despite having almost nothing to do with her after that first day at school. On second thoughts, probably not. She might find that a bit freaky. Or flattering. I don’t know.

Aurelien Hayman would understand my situation. In The Boy Who Can’t Forget, shown in the UK on Channel 4 last week, the 20 year old Durham University student recounted a date, the day of the week it fell on, what he ate on that day, what the weather was like, along with snippets from that day’s news.

When Hayman’s brain was scanned by Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, Head of Psychology at Hull University, he was prompted to remember a series of dates. When he did this, a series of “visual areas” lit up, she found.

Aurelien is studying English literature (so did I). I wonder if, like me, he’ll become a journalist, where being able to recall facts and figures while interviewing an evasive politician is a great skill to have.

It also comes in useful when a colleague asks when we ran a particular print issue cover, or the last time we covered a particular topic, although the internet means I’m now asked a lot less frequently.

I have a BMJ colleague with a similarly good memory. Like me, he’s gay. So is Aurelian. So is David Tammet, who has written about living with high-functioning autism and appeared twice in the World Memory Championship. Someone posted a comment in response to the Daily Telegraph review of the programme if anyone has explored a link between homosexuality and hyperthymesia (a highly superior autobiographical memory). Then he worried if he sounded homophobic.

A second response to the Telegraph review said the ability to recall events in the way Aurelien does is of limited use because an effective memory is surely one that “sorts wheat from chaff.” A third puts it more bluntly: “Surely normal brains dump trivial information on purpose so that we can focus on remembering important things.”

Also, is Aurelien’s “gift” a blessing or a curse? One Daily Mail reader responded to his story thus: “I’m lucky. I have a bad memory. People with good memories are usually depressed. I, on the other hand, forget most of the bad things, in a short time, that have happened to me.”

Jill Price, an American schools administrator in her 40s, was the first person to be diagnosed with hyperthymesia. She also appeared in the documentary.

But unlike Aurelien, Jill came across as a troubled soul. She dwells on unpleasant episodes from her past, appeared mistrustful of people, and now shuns media attention after New York cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus claimed in Wired magazine that she was obsessed with her past (unlike Aurelien, Jill keeps a diary). Marcus had likened her brain to someone who had obsessive compulsive disorder.

I do have sympathy with a respondent on another online forum, who says: “It gets embarrassing as you start chatting too friendly to someone you only met once months before.”  I often try and rein myself in when I hear myself doing this.

Aurelien’s only awkward moment in the film was when he suddenly asked the camera to stop filming him as he listed past winners of Channel 4’s Big Brother series. The reason wasn’t clear. Did he worry he wasn’t being taken seriously? Perhaps he was concerned the film may be edited to imply he’d memorised the winners recently.

Will Aurelien’s amazing memory fade? Mine certainly has as I’ve reached my 40s, and even at its peak was not as good as his is now. I used to worry slightly that I was “burning up” memory at too fast a pace, and dementia would strike early.

I’m finishing this blog in a hotel room in Washington DC, where I’m attending a conference, which starts later today. It’s my third time in the city and with a few hours to spare I’m wondering how to spend the free time I have. But I’m reluctant to revisit the museums because I remember them so vividly from before. That would be a waste of time. If my memory were poorer, I wouldn’t have that worry.

But I do need to go to the shops, because I forgot to pack my socks.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com