Never forgetting anything: a privilege or a burden? Australian Rebecca Sharrock, 27, lives with a rare syndrome called Higher Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), a condition in which the patient forgets almost nothing of what happened in her life, including memories of when she was only a few days old.
People like Rebecca have the ability to remember very old facts, as well as the accurate dates and times of the events. It is speculated that there are fewer than 80 people with this syndrome in the world.
In addition to HSAM, the Australian has been diagnosed with two other conditions: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which causes anxiety and confusion; and autism, which makes learning a little slower.
Neurologist Daniel Paes Santos says that the study of memory functioning such as Rebecca’s can add relevant information to the research of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, since the spectrum of memory formation is the basis for understanding the pathological process.
“Understanding how amyloid beta protein deposition affects the functional process of memory formation requires understanding this function, including how emotions can influence the process”, adds the neurologist.
In an interview to Portal Health Connections, Rebecca talks about how it is like to live with the syndrome, her memories, her lifestyle and devices that help her mentally organize herself.
Interview with Rebecca Sharrock - Part 1
Health Connections – HC: When did you realize other people did not have the same memory potential as yours?
Rebecca Sharrock – RS: From my childhood I thought that everyone remembered in the same kind of way that I do. I would experience occasional confusion whenever many people would say that they couldn't remember a certain event of their past. On January 23rd, 2011 my parents showed me a news segment on television which was about a group of six people who could remember everyday of their life since they were children. The reporters were describing their recollections as “amazing”, and I turned to my parents confused as to why they were calling them amazing. My parents then told me that they believed I had HSAM too.
HC: When were you diagnosed?
RS: We came in contact with the place that was studying the people of the report, which was the University of California, Irvine and for two years I did various tests with them via Skype. Professor James McGaugh and Professor Craig stark identified/diagnosed me with HSAM in May 2013.
HC: Do you have kids? If so, how do they deal with the fact that you never forget anything?
RS: At this point I don't have children and am not sure if I ever will. Yet if I do have a child I will raise him/her in a way that's influenced by my own memories of being a child
HC: How would that be, on what details would you focus your attention and care?
RS: It's so important for everyone to know that as much personal interaction as possible by the parents is needed throughout childhood. Many parents work and have other children to look after. So it's not possible for parents to personally interact with their children all the time. Yet interacting with children whenever possible (by conversation and play) is needed for their emotional wellbeing and social/personal growth. Television and computers entertain children and are good to use sparingly. But technology doesn't provide the same emotional and personal connection as human interaction does.
HC: How was it at school, the reaction of teachers with a student like you in the classroom? What about the reaction of your classmates?
RS: Spelling was a subject that I tended to do well at during school. At six years old I used to correct the teachers spelling while she was writing on the blackboard. She'd then say to mum how embarrassing it was to have a First Grader correcting a teacher’s spelling.
HC: Since you are able to remember everything, have you always been good at taking tests?
RS: A fair number of people are surprised when they hear that I never did well at anything but spelling tests at school. Despite remembering all of my lessons, my autism made me much slower at processing. So I often jokingly say that there's a possibility I would have gotten better grades if I sat the tests three months later!
HC: What profession did you decide to pursue? Does the syndrome help you with it?
RS: As a profession I write books, blog for SpecialKids.Company (as well as on public blogging platforms), and I do public speaking at schools and mental health centres. I find that HSAM helps me a lot with remembering scripts for speeches. Also, writing about my personal experiences in books and blogs feels more natural because the way in which I process information to myself is similar to how I write.
HC: Do your memories hinder your sleep?
RS: My mind involuntarily relives memories all the time. So naturally this does get in the way of my sleeping. Yet I find that when I keep my mind stimulated by light and noise I’m distracted from those flashbacks, and fall asleep easily. As a child I also learned to recite the Harry Potter books so that I could read myself to sleep in silence with my eyes closed. That works very well for me.
HC: What are your favorite activities?
RS: Other than public speaking and writing, my hobbies are anything Harry Potter related, putting together (adult) Lego sets and visiting Disneyland whenever I’m in California.
This interview is the first of a series of reports to be published about the “super memory syndrome”, focusing on patient Rebbeca Sharrock’s experiences. Next week, check out a new piece on the subject here at Portal Health Connections.