Getting Tested

The word “test” has meant a lot of different things in my life.

As a student it was taking an exam in history or math to measure  how much I had retained from class lectures and homework assignments. As a competitive figure skater, testing meant skating in front of a panel of judges who determined if my skills were good enough to pass to the next level. Both types of tests caused me immense amounts anxiety growing up. I assume most people know what it is like to take a test in school, but let me amuse you for a moment and describe a figure skating test:

“Test Sessions” as we called them usually took place on a Friday morning, starting around 6 AM. They were events no one came to watch besides your mom and maybe there was a sibling or two of another skater in the bleachers playing on a Game-boy. 

I was a skater who thrived off of a crowd’s energy, so test sessions where you could only hear the sound of crickets in the stands were not really my strong suit. I loved working the crowd and performing at shows and competitions, but testing just seemed like a chore. Making matters worse, there was no music allowed for most skating tests and they could last up to 20 minutes. That means every scrape, scratch and fall echoed over the entire rink and all you had to listen to were your own thoughts. 

I want you to picture yourself right now on ice skates in the middle of a shed like structure turned into an ice rink. All you hear is dead silence for 20 minutes as you are all alone with no one but three judges over the age of 50 watching you like hawks from behind the boards. While they are wrapped in fleece blankets drinking catered hot chocolate, you shiver in a tiny dress and skin colored tights. Welcome to my childhood.

So needless to say the word “test” traditionally held a negative connotation in my head. But when I was 20-years-old, the semester after Dr. Nielsen’s class, I got an email from UC Irvine asking if I would be willing to get tested for HSAM. Let me tell you, I had never wanted to pass a test more in my life. I wanted to pass this even more than I wanted to pass my drivers test at age 16, for which I was so thankful to pass because I had failed the first time, that I gave the DMV employee a hug when I was given my licence.

And you’re probably thinking, “Why? You knew you had HSAM?” But this was a point in my life when I was still trying to prove myself. And my worst fear was not passing this test and then being left to deal with this ability all by myself.

So this led to me practicing- not studying, I am not a cheater- practicing. I knew I could recall the dates they would ask me, but what if I wasn’t fast enough? Or what if I accidently was off by a day and that one mistake cost me this entire  opportunity to learn more about myself? 

This is where I have to give some props to my college friends here because they let me practice with them. Thank you Allison,one of my best friends and my roommate that year, who checked me as I threw out random dates pacing around our bedroom. Thank you Ely, another amazing friend who threw random dates at me in her kitchen and cheered me on as I dug in my brain for answers like I was racing to win the Kentucky Derby.

 Looking back “practicing” is what built my confidence. 

To test people for HSAM (at the time I was being tested) there were two batteries of tests to complete: the 30 Dates Quiz and the 10 Dates Quiz.

The first of the two I was asked to complete was the 30 Dates Quiz. This test included 15 questions where the researcher would ask me about a current event, and I would name the date it occurred on. The other 15 questions where I was given a date and asked to name the major current event that fell on that day. In order to get to the 10 Dates Quiz, I had to pass this one first.

Honestly answering the phone on March 1st, 2015 when a number from Irvine appeared on my caller ID felt a lot like stepping out onto an empty sheet of ice at 6 AM with three judges watching me. I cared so much whether I passed or failed that test, but the judges or in this case the researcher I was trying to impress tested people like me every day, people who thought they were exceptional at something.

And so walking around the kitchen of my college apartment, I started to answer the researcher’s questions.  As she threw out current events, I was running along the calendar path in my brain. “What day was Obama elected president of the United States?” (Tuesday November 4th election, Wednesday the 5th announced as winner). “What day was the most recent major earthquake in Haiti?” (Tuesday, January 12th, 2010). And the list went on.

The only problem? My calendar path with my HSAM memory only goes back to 2005. So when she asked about events in 2003 or 1998, I didn’t have an answer. The researcher disclosed to me I was one of the youngest people they had tested at the time, and that’s where testing for HSAM with the 30 Dates Quiz starts to get tricky.

There were events I was asked to recall that a girl who was 14-years-old and living in Northern Wisconsin at the time of their occurrence would have no clue about. For example, I was asked what significant political event happened on December 4th, 2008. I racked my brain for an answer, but I had no clue. 

Apparently a journalist threw his shoes at George W. Bush. But as a freshman in high school I didn’t even know that event took place. I was more interested in the new Taylor Swift Album than a pair of Nike’s hitting the president.

This proved to be interesting when the last 15 questions were reversed. Dates were called out that I knew right away like December 14th, 2012 which was Sandyhook or the day Michael Jackson died. 

Side note: I think I have yet to take an HSAM quiz when someone doesn’t ask me what day Micheal Jackson died on. My guess is that people think it’s a unique questions because it’s not a really well known catastrophic event like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, but yet everyone knows Michael Jackson. But I’m telling you now, this is not a unique question. 

June 25th, 2009, it was a Thursday I heard about Michael Jackson’s death on the radio in my mom’s car and then they played “Man in the Mirror”. Later that day I went to my friend, Jill’s, birthday party and we talked about Michael Jackson while sitting on her trampoline. The end.

Anyway, if you’ve ever taken a psychology or sociology class, you’ve probably heard from a cultural perspective that the IQ test is biased towards western society, many tasks being familiar with someone native to the United States as opposed to someone from an eastern culture. The 30 dates test for HSAM is the same way.

Due to different cultural and age factors, different people remember different things as “significant”. So either HSAM is actually really rare or there are more people with HSAM who simply cannot pass the test because they are younger or not American. This is when I realized one of the biggest challenges for testing HSAM: because autobiographical memory is so personal not everyone may do well under the standard battery even if they do live with HSAM.

But on the flip side, researchers cannot make a different set of questions for every person they test. Not only would that take an immense amount of time, but also people would not be held to the same measure so the results of who has HSAM and who does not may not be reliable. 

I was able to tell the researcher on the other end of the phone all the days of the week the dates they said fell on if the current events were out of my scope of knowledge scope, which they said was fine if I could give them a variable event around the same time.  And with that I had passed phase one of the HSAM test. 

The second call I had was about a week later on March 8th with the same researcher, but this time she was giving me a different set of questions called “The 10 Dates Quiz”. 

I was at home in Green Bay taking this test over the phone during spring break. Most college kids went on vacation somewhere for spring break, but since my dad had died a year ago at this point I wanted to be home with my mom. 

On the phone with the researcher, I walked around my childhood home recalling dates, as our cat, Linzee, stared at me with his squinted green eyes (yes, Linzee is a boy). 

For this test ten dates between 2005 and 2014 were generated, and I was asked to tell the researcher everything I knew about each day they gave me. The days that happened to be selected were actually fun to go back to. One was December 1st, 2009 my first date.

“Where did you say you went out to eat on this date?” the researcher asked. 


“A what?”

Until this point I didn’t know Culvers was a Wisconsin chain that expanded to only some other Midwestern states. I really could not understand why this researcher from Irvine, California had no idea what a butter burger was- and if you are reading this and have not tried a butter burger, turn off your computer and drive to the Culvers nearest you right now. Here I will make it easy for you:

 I’ve been described by my friends in college and graduate school who are from other states as “just about as Wisconsin as you can get” (obviously they have not met my extended family). During the 10 Dates Quiz in particular, my “Sconnie” side really shined through beside the sharp contrast of Southern California culture on more than just the December 1st, 2009 question.

“I’m sorry, you played who on December 13th, 2008?” the researcher asked.

“Bruce the Spruce, you know the talking Christmas tree from the story. “

Silence followed my clarification.

“I went inside the Christmas Tree at the museum and asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas.  Bruce the Spruce!” Apparently this was just a Wisconsin tradition as well.

Another side note: if you have never heard of Bruce the Spruce you are 100% missing out. Bruce is a pine tree that apparently woke Santa up on Christmas Eve when he fell asleep in the forest of the North Pole. And to commemorate this tale the city of Green Bay took it upon itself to make a tree volunteers would climb inside and talk to kids as Bruce the Spruce in the middle of Prage’s Department Store. Once Prage’s shut down, Bruce was moved to the local museum which is where I became Bruce. 

“What were you doing on August 9th, 2014?” the researcher continued to ask.

“I was on a date at the Wisconsin State Fair watching the baby goat races.”

Let’s just leave it at those three examples and say California was not ready for your’s truly.

And so the researchers left the phone conversation ready to verify that the baby goat races at the Wisconsin State Fair actually happened on August 9th 2014, at 3 PM and that the Green Bay Packers actually played the Seattle Seahawks on September 24th, 2012 during which game the “worst call ever” or the “fail Mary” was made. And not long after the call, the researchers contacted me telling me I had gotten 9/10 questions on correct on the 10 Dates Quiz correct. The score of an average person was 2/10 and the average score for someone with HSAM was exactly the score I got.

I officially was recognized as one of around 60 people with HSAM.

When I would pass a test in school, I would get a good grade. When I would pass a figure skating test, I would move up to the next level striving to achieve bigger jumps or harder moves. So after taking these tests for HSAM, I had to beg the question “Now what?”

P.S. I know you all are wondering what Bruce looked like… so here you go!

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