HSAM: An Ability with Blessings and Curses

One of the reasons I didn’t find out I had HSAM until college was because, generally, no one really knows what HSAM is. When I have gone to see a new therapist because I moved somewhere,  I find myself telling them, “oh yeah, I also have this memory thing”. And when I say the technical name, I am the one explaining to the psychologist what it is. 

Another reason I did not know what HSAM was for so long is because I did not have the words to describe it myself. Before I started my undergraduate degree in psychology, I did not have the vocabulary to put into Google to find the articles by UC Irvine or the first clip from 60 minutes featuring Jill Price and other people with HSAM like myself.

I found myself trying to figure out what was going on in my mind as a middle and high schooler by simply typing in things to search engines like “remembering dates”, and I would get a bunch of blog posts about people’s first romantic dates… Obviously not what I was looking for. I didn’t know what “autobiographical memory” was until college, and this was the key to understanding HSAM.

Memory is conceptualized by many psychologists in a tree like structure. The top of the tree has two overarching categories of memory, declarative and non-declarative memories.

Non-declarative memories are otherwise known as procedural, things like brushing your teeth or walking. These are things are brain needs to remember how to do in order to do them, we had to learn to walk across a room at some point in our life. But we have done these things so often, we do not consciously have to recall how to walk every time we need to get out of bed in the morning.

Declarative memories are things we consciously recall like facts or times in our lives. There are two types of declarative memory, semantic and episodic.

Semantic memories are facts. If I know the capital of the United States is Washington D.C., then I am using my semantic memory to recall this fact.

Episodic memory is the retrieval of a past event, like remembering your 10th birthday or your junior prom. When you picture all the dresses you saw at prom, maybe the decorations and the music playing- that is episodic memory. 

When I first started educating myself on the science of memory I thought autobiographical memory was simply episodic memory but more specific to yourself. This is not the case!

Autobiographical memory is actually a combination and both episodic and semantic memory pertaining to the entire history of you. For example, if I recall my high school graduation I can tell you I graduated from De Pere High School, that is a fact or a semantic memory. But I can also picture myself giving the class speech to a gym full of people, which is coming from an episodic place.

The memory of my high school graduation becomes a full autobiographical memory when all the information is in place. I know it was held in our high school gym, and I can actually picture the ceremony taking place, my family sitting in the bleachers, and my principal shaking my hand and handing my diploma.

Having HSAM makes both the semantic and episodic parts of my memory more intense. My ability to recall what day an event in my life happened on is semantic memory.

For example, I can tell you for a fact I met Mark Cuban at a bar in Indiana on Friday, August 25th. It is a fact that event took place- I have a picture to prove it. But I can also visualize myself pushing through the crowds of people at Nick’s English Hut in downtown Bloomington when I saw Mark Cuban. Then I can picture myself pushing harder through the crowd to get to meet Mark Cuban because well it was Mark Cuban. And that is all episodic information as I reply myself being over the moon posing for a picture with Mark Cuban. This memory is an autobiographical one, made up of both episodic and semantic pieces. Having HSAM gives me the ability to recall these memories with intense amounts of detail. 

*Side note: you will learn throughout this blog I have five celebrity crushes, one of those being Mark Cuban. The other four are as follows: Aaron Rodgers, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Eric Fisher- not to be confused with the Eric Fisher who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. My guy is a national weather man, and if you followed his coverage of Hurricane Irene back in 2011 you would be in love with him too.

So when people ask me if HSAM helps me in school, the answer is not really. My ability to recall general semantic facts is the same as everyone else’s. I think sometimes people confuse HSAM with photographic memory, being able to take snapshots of things you say and pull them back up. My memory is more like if you were to replay a movie of your own life in your mind without the ability to pause the tape. 

When I first learned about HSAM, I rushed to the one place I thought would have the answers: the DSM. 

In my college abnormal psychology class I learned this was the diagnostic manual for all mental health disorders. As I flipped through the pages I saw Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, Substance Use Disorders, you name it. But what was not in the manual was HSAM.

At first I thought HSAM may not be in the DSM because it is so new and so rare. But I have come to realize HSAM should never be in the DSM at all because it is not a disorder- it is an ability

Watching segments on HSAM done by local new stations and interest groups around the world, I cringe when HSAM is called a “disorder” or a “syndrome”.  Because HSAM is so rare, it is easy to label it as a disorder. But just because something isn’t normal to most people doesn’t mean it is a defect. I think reporters have chosen words like “syndrome” and “illness”  without thinking through the consequences. 

To my dismay, actual mental illnesses are still stigmatized in modern societies around the world. As someone who currently works in college health education I explain the stigma on mental health to my students like this:

The word “stigma” comes from the Greek word “stigmata”, meaning a mark of shame on a person. In the case of a mental health diagnoses, our culture has turned what was supposed to be a system to get people proper treatment for mental health issues into harmful labels putting different stereotypes on those diagnosed. People get diagnosed with conditions of all sorts, physical and mental, so medical professionals know how to treat them. A label simply makes this process easier.

However, we now have negative attributes we associate with different mental health diagnoses, like someone is “dangerous”, “lazy” or “unintelligent” because they have a mental health issue, none of these stigmas necessarily being true.

When people carelessly use words like “illness” or I have even heard “disease” to describe HSAM, it implies there is something wrong with me. It allows stigmas to be put on me because I live with HSAM. And although the stigmas are certainly different from the nine or ten common stigmas people associate with mental health issues, calling HSAM a “disorder” puts out the idea that having it must be a bad thing. 

I have had people assume I hold grudges or I am always living in the past, when neither of these things are true. There were certainly times in my life where I have had trouble letting things go, but I have worked through them like anyone else would. 

Along with this, a diagnosis of an illness implies that the condition is something you want to get rid of, to be treated and disappear. I do not want to get rid of my HSAM, it is part of what makes me, me. Now, I do have other mental health conditions that require treatment, and I do wish the stigma surrounding those would go away and that the illnesses would banish right along with it. But I want to stop everyone right here before we even go that far with HSAM.

HSAM is not an illness, or a syndrome, or a disease, rather it is an ability– maybe even a super one. And like all abilities, there are blessings and curses.

On Saturday, November 30th, the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2013, I sat in the middle of a packed movie theater in my hometown. My boyfriend, at the time, and I were seeing Disney’s new animated film Frozen.

I remember thinking about Elsa’s character for days afterwards. I felt as if I could relate to her somehow, but I was not sure exactly why. It occurred to me about a year later, after I found out what HSAM was, that Elsa’s powers in the movie were a lot like my own. We see at the beginning she is told to learn how to control her powers, but instead she quarantines herself because of her powers-thinking isolation equals control.

As I am sure others have felt if they have a loved with a memory impairment of some sort like Alzhiemer’s or dementia, being the only one who remembers something can feel very isolating. Therefore, for a long time I felt very isolated having total recall abilities. 

However, when used strategically, HSAM can be how you love other people. It can be used to remember someone’s birthday, anniversary, or someone’s achievement they are most proud of. I can remember the little details of what someone likes to eat or things a person enjoys doing, as long as I have experienced it with them.

We as humans pay attention to the things we care about, and when we give something our attention we have the ability to remember it. For me, remembering is my way of showing someone how much I really care.

At the end of Frozen, Elsa has her “aha” moment as she exclaims, “Love thaws!” and starts to bring back summer amidst the harsh winter she created.  Much like the Snow Queen herself, it is through loving others that I have personally found my own memory powers to be more of a blessing rather than a curse. 

And just for proof:

I did meet Mark Cuban.

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1 Comment

  1. True. Well, for me it’s difficult to deal with HSAM because there are events I simply want to let go or at least—not be able to recall in such vivid details. But it’s a part of me, it makes me and I like remembering what others have simply forgotten. Thank you for sharing.

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