The rare trait that may hold the secret to having a better memory

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This story is part of an ongoing series on Exceptional Humans and the scientists studying them to help us all benefit from their superhuman abilities.

Veronica Carletti, a doctor in San Leo, a small Italian town east of Florence, remembers virtually every day of her adult life, whether it’s Nov. 25, 1992, when she won a race at school, or July 31, 2015, the day she discovered other people had memories like hers.

Carletti is one of several dozen people around the world identified with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). American researcher Dr. James McGaugh discovered the trait nearly 20 years ago while working at the University of California, Irvine, but the research has since moved to the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, led by a team that includes one of McGaugh’s former students, Dr. Patrizia Campolongo. She and her collaborators are beginning to crack the mystery of how this sort of “hyper-memory” is possible.

They’re studying the minds of people with HSAM to see how the various parts of their brains communicate, and how that differs from the rest of us. They hope that their work will uncover specific brain circuits that could one day be stimulated in people who have trouble remembering their own lives—like people with Alzheimer’s disease. They also hope that the work could help individuals with intrusive memories, like people with PTSD or depression. 

Ironically, as the work progresses, they’re starting to question whether people with HSAM actually have superior memories, or if it stems from an inability to forget. What they learn could flip the paradigm on our understanding of how memory works.

In episode two of our video series Exceptional Humans, we go to Italy to spend time with Carletti in San Leo and in Rome, where researchers scan her brain to unlock the secrets of her memory. We also make a detour to the Netherlands, where researchers in Nijmegen are studying an entirely different group of people with an exceptional capacity to remember: memory athletes, who train to memorize numbers or decks of cards. By looking where the two lines of research overlap and diverge, we gain an appreciation of how memories can help—and hurt—us, and how improving our memories can alter our brains.