Hyperthymesia: The Positives and Negatives of Remembering Everything

Those who have hyperthymesia can call upon their past memories whenever they wish, even those from when they were babies. But there are some negative aspects to consider in this syndrome.
Hyperthymesia: The Positives and Negatives of Remembering Everything
Leonardo Biolatto

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 14 June, 2023

Have you ever wished you had a photographic memory for easier access to valuable information? Would you like to have effortless access to the answers to an exam? Well, there are people with hyperthymesia who can do this.

However, there are also negative aspects to this condition. Read on because we’ll tell you more about this ability to remember everything!

What is hyperthymesia?

More than a skill, remembering all aspects of life is a syndrome called “hyperthymesia” or “autobiographical memory”. According to a scientific article published in the journal Neuropsychology, it occurs in very few people in the world.

Highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) causes people with the syndrome to remember details of their life very accurately. In 2017, for example, the case of a woman named Rebecca Sharrock, who remembers specific moments from her first week in the world, was documented.

I remember how, at just one week old, I was wrapped in a pink cotton blanket.

~ Rebecca Sharrock to the BBC ~

The concept of HSAM arose from the case of young Jill Price, who was studied by neuroscientist Jim McGaugh, after she sent him a letter telling him that she remembered every day of her life since she turned 12. After the situation became public, McGaugh was contacted by others who claimed to have the same type of memories.

Several analyses determined that, although the memory of these people was exceptional when it came to remembering their own lives, it wasn’t so exceptional when it came to recalling impersonal memories. This is confirmed by a 2016 scientific publication.

Some characteristics that people with HSAM tend to have are as follows:

The positives and negatives of having hyperthymesia

It isn’t a superpower, nor can it be considered a curse. Now that you know what hyperthymesia is, let’s tell you about the positives and negatives.

Positives: excellent autobiographical memory

People with hyperthymesia have an exceptional photographic memory. They remember many things about their lives as children that others couldn’t even imagine.

As explained by research published in Frontiers in Psychology, people with an autobiographical memory process memories just as anyone else would. The difference is that, even if the details are minimal, they go directly into the long-term memory circuit, making them much easier to retrieve.

Negatives: the mind creates false memories

According to research revealed in 2013, people with hyperthymesia can have their autobiographical memories affected by false episodes. It’s common for the brain to fill in blanks or distorted spaces to provide a complete and coherent episode.

To reach this conclusion, the aforementioned study compared the memory of 20 people with hyperthymesia and 38 without. They found that both groups had the same susceptibility to create false memories.

Positive and negative: affects mood

People with hyperthymesia have almost unlimited access to their memories. This becomes a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, if the person is emotionally mature, he or she will be able to access his or her best moments, and improve their mood. However, their negative or unpleasant memories could bring sadness and pain.

A clear example of what we are saying is Rebecca Sharrock. She told the media that she remembers crying as a baby because she had dreams that she was unable to differentiate from reality. Now that she’s an adult, she uses this ability to control what she dreams and reduce her nightmares.

How do I know if I have hyperthymesia?

Detailing the precise origin of hyperthymesia is complex, considering that research is lacking. However, the studies available so far allow us to identify three possible causes:

  • Biological: One of the studies conducted with people with HSAM found increased brain activity in certain areas. There was also greater connectivity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Other research indicated that the amygdala is also involved in the hyperstimulated cognitive process.
  • Psychological: Researchers conducted a study that theorized that people with HSAM have a prodigious autobiographical memory because they think obsessively about their past experiences.
  • Genetics: in 2012, a group of researchers made an incredible finding, which was published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. Their conclusion was that there are nine morphologically different brain structures between those with hyperthymesia and those with normal memory.
Beyond this, the official diagnosis must be provided by professionals.

In general, electroencephalograms and MRI scans are performed. Additionally, an autobiographical memory test is proposed, in which the person’s emotional and contextual responses are analyzed when asked about past memories.

Although hyperthymesia can be seen in a positive light, it’s always best to be guided by a doctor or medical expert. The aim is to avoid the negative aspects of this great ability.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Aurora K.R. LePort and Aaron T. Mattfeld and Heather Dickinson-Anson and James H. Fallon and Craig E.L. Stark and Frithjof Kruggel and Larry Cahill and James L. McGaugh. (2012) Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Volumen 98, Número 1, páginas 78-92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2012.05.002
  • Ally, B. A., Hussey, E. P., & Donahue, M. J. (2013). A case of hyperthymesia: rethinking the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory. Neurocase, 19(2), 166–181. https://doi.org/10.1080/13554794.2011.654225
  • Brandt, J., & Bakker, A. (2018). Neuropsychological investigation of “the amazing memory man”. Neuropsychology, 32(3), 304–316. https://doi.org/10.1037/neu0000410
  • LePort, A. K., Stark, S. M., McGaugh, J. L., & Stark, C. E. (2017). A cognitive assessment of highly superior autobiographical memory. Memory (Hove, England), 25(2), 276–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2016.1160126
  • LePort, A. K., Stark, S. M., McGaugh, J. L., & Stark, C. E. (2016). Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory: Quality and Quantity of Retention Over Time. Frontiers in psychology6, 2017. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02017
  • Patihis, L., Frenda, S. J., LePort, A. K., Petersen, N., Nichols, R. M., Stark, C. E., … & Loftus, E. F. (2013). False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(52), 20947-20952. https://www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.1314373110
  • Santangelo, V., Cavallina, C., Colucci, P., Santori, A., Macrì, S., McGaugh, J. L., & Campolongo, P. (2018). Enhanced brain activity associated with memory access in highly superior autobiographical memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(30), 7795–7800. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1802730115

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.