Memory 101 this morning, in response to some questions asked about my private research into child prodigies. Take notes, there will be a pop quiz on Monday.
I am an eidetiker, or a person with what is commonly but incorrectly referred to as a "photographic" memory. So is my daughter, so it is a genetic condition. Eidetikers are able to retain the image of something so vividly that, when recalled, it appears to be real to us (our eyes physically react to it as if the memory were reality.) We're not all that special; the ability pops up regularly in the population -- one study showed that it may be as common as one in one thousand -- but the ability is generally limited and usually fades with age. If you're not me, anyway.
Mnemonists, the rock stars of neurological freaks, use images in mental constructions (loci) for memory storage and recall purposes. Thomas Harris's character Hannibal Lecter was a mnemonist. Lecter was also highly idealized; gifted mnemonists are plagued with associative problems and end up locked inside their "memory palaces."
Autistic savants, formerly known as idiot savants, are individuals suffering from autism who nevertheless display prodigious mental ability. The ability to perform complex calculation is common among autistic savants. So is "calendar memory" with which an autistic savant appears to calculate time, i.e. what day of the week any date in known history will fall on. Scientists have linked these extraordinary splinter skills which autistic savants and other mentally impaired individuals display to abnormalities with chromosome 15 (and while this disorder is directly linked to autistism, nine out of ten autistics have no unusual mental abilities.) Raymond, Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man was a prodigious autistic savant. My oldest son suffered from a mild form of autism.
No one knows why eidetikers, mnemonists and autistic savants happen, but our respective dysfunctions (and trust me, that's what it is) are so similar as to suggest a common bond.
Back in the 80's, neurologists Norman Geschwind and Albert Galaburda theorized that left-hemisphere dysfunction caused by testosterone impairment of neurons during fetal development was the culprit in autistic savants. They based this theory on the fact that the ration of male to female autistic savants is 5 to 1.
Another study showed that persons with unusual memory capacity have physically larger brains than the "normals" out there, and that introduction of toxins or unusual levels of hormone while in utero may contribute to abnormal cerebral development. This one I have a little more faith in; it applies to both genders.
Aside from being poked and prodded to death to flesh out someone's moronic thesis, or being trotted out on stage to do the Elephant Man thing, there is very little practical use for memory whizzes. Autistics already face an incredible amount of problems simply learning to function in the every day world; as would anyone who can recite pi but can't use a spoon. True mnemonists are pretty rare, but from the histories I've studied it looks like most end up going insane. Eidetikers seem to integrate a little better, and once you know how to slap the mental lens cap on and stay away from the academics, it's not bad.
The scientists and academics who study us are for the most part not interested in helping us. There is no cure for our conditions, although we can be trained, like monkeys, so maybe the freak show attitude is justified. I can't say, as I was a child and on the receiving end of it. I still want most of those people dead.
One thing I've been able to do is help my daughter to deal with the associative problems. Progressive paranoia, the inability to forgive, and hyperlexia are just some of the delights that she faces, but she's coping well. The real fun starts in puberty, which by my calculations should arrive sometime in 2007.
Want to know how your memory rates? Try these online tests:
Short Term Memory Test
BBC's Memory Test