Tyler Dwyer is one of a handful of people with Superior Autobiographical Memory. He can remember everything that’s ever happened to him, but what does it mean to never forget?
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
100 years is both a century, and an insignificant instant. You could say the same thing about all measures of time, both seemingly forever and nothing at all. The human mind is a confounding window through which to view the world – although, it depends on who you’re asking.
Tyler Dwyer is a thirty-year-old private insurance consultant in Calgary, Alberta. He lives alone in an almost brutalist duplex smattered with awkwardly placed empty bottles of Alberta Premium and his loud chausie cat, Jax. A man of few words, Dwyer has a habit of looking off to the side or directly out to the horizon – where his memories are – when he speaks. He doesn’t waste time looking at anyone’s face. His prosopagnosia (the clinical term for face blindness) makes looking at others faces like trying to piece together warped, illegible reels on a ViewMaster. He’s habitually cynical, and often as bitter as the sticky residue off the bottom of one of the empty pop-top cans of Alberta Genuine Draft on his coffee table – his usual quip for that is because he can remember details of every single day of his life since the age of three.
Many people take comfort in imagining their memory is like a hard drive in a computer, that the data of an event is stored exactly as it happened until it undergoes deletion. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Memory is not an event stored on any type of mental artifact, it’s an active process akin to wandering city streets drenched in pea soup fog, lined with landmarks and neon signs. Those neon signs are made of a thousand chromatic traces of dots clinging together in the shape of letters and words, the same way a thousand letters and words create the shape of you.
Right now, Dwyer is pacing back and forth, Jax in tow, through his living room listening to Avatar. His drink of choice at the moment is three ounces of Roku gin from his trip to Japan over the summer, and what he guesses is two ounces of frozen vermouth and a fifth of frozen raspberries. “I mean, it’s not like I was going to do this sober and be talking very much,” he mused. We share a laugh, as old friends, although sometimes it’s odd to think that he remembers more about my time in high school than I do. “Our first meeting was all of twelve seconds, you stepped on me at work and apologized. You didn’t remember me.”
Jill Price was the first to be diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), and today there are roughly sixty known others with the condition, but possibly many more like Dwyer who have avoided a formal diagnosis. Dwyer paints the portrait of his life in a mixture of broad strokes and vivid details. He can actively recall any specific memory as far back as twenty-four years ago as easily as a memory of last week. The way he describes his life and each of the details he can remember so clearly comes across as more of a burden than a gift. At all times, his mind is rooted firmly in the past.
“I guess compared to other people I don’t whimsically jump into the same mistakes over and over again,” Dwyer replied. “Not the emotional mistakes though, I jump into those all the time,” he added with glaring cynicism, biting into a frozen liquor-soaked raspberry. To Dwyer, the good times are just as up front and as a bold as the bad. “When I’m being presented with a good time it’s kind of overwhelming all of my past experiences that match up to that emotion,” he explained. “Then, being unable to forget all the dark shit you’ve ever done or has been inflicted on you? I think that’s self-explanatory.”
Although, nothing is ever really gone forever so to speak, every memory leaves traces of unintentional fragmentation scattered across the streets you roam. Those are the landmarks.
Fitting, then, that what’s considered the most difficult exam of any kind in the world is undertaken by London cab drivers. The name almost evokes a taste of occultic flavour, and its history is steeped in centuries of ritual: The Knowledge is a unique psychological ordeal. Passing The Knowledge demands an average of four years and thousands of hours of immersive, first hand study in the 25,000-odd city streets of London that wind like a torturous web of overcooked pasta. It’s a city that rends the memory of even lifelong residents into anxious confusion at any moment. The streets are lined daily by individuals set adrift desperately looking for a recognizable sign or landmark. Their geographical question quietly lending itself to an existential one: “Where am I?”
“One of my biggest fears is memory loss,” Dwyer explained. It’s a trait he shares with the majority of those with HSAM who find their piercing memory a key part of their identity. He mused for a moment over the idea of forgetting, “having a part of me missing, having this blind spot that I can’t probe around? It would be glaringly obvious – but you can piece together something by the hole it’s left.”
While every region of the brain can exhibit plasticity to varying degrees, psychology professor Douglas Alards-Tomalin explains that the hippocampus is the only region of the brain able to undergo neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons.
A 2011 study of London cab drivers undertaking The Knowledge showed a gradual growth in grey matter volume in the mid-posterior hippocampus, an area of the brain implicit in spatial memory encoding. This theory of mental representation is a dynamic process called cognitive mapping. The process of completing The Knowledge also subsequently results in a decrease in the volume of the anterior hippocampus, although its role in memory function is still speculative at best.
All the patients studied with HSAM exhibit increased volumes in the parahippocampal gyrus, an area engaged in emotional memory retention and in the uncinate fascicle, the bridge involved in episodic memory. Whether the structural differences in the brains of HSAM patients is the causation of their superior memory, as it is with London cab drivers, a byproduct of it, or perhaps some combination of both is still unclear. What Dwyer and London cabbies have in common, though, is that they carry not just the secrets of inner-city navigation but are almost Gnostics of the deep historical memory of people and place.
Dr. Dorthe Berntsen, founder of Aarhus University’s Center on Autobiographical Memory Research waxes on the remarkable potential of autobiographical memory: “it shows we may have to revise how we have thought about our ability to remember the past.”
A 2013 study revealed that despite their extraordinary clarity, HSAM subjects and average people have an equal propensity to form false memories. Not even those like Dwyer are immune to the reconstructive mechanisms of the brain.
Which is to say, there is no real memory. I can’t hold onto the moment I first thought these words, you can’t hold on to the moment you first read them. Together, we’ve created something completely unique that will remain unreproducible for the total sum of linear time. Attachment is the ultimate manufacturer of illusions. All memories are made by a thousand severed fragments, only to be unmade again.
Like all the others in his field, Alards-Tomalin can only speculate on the process of HSAM: “It might be that they have the memory, or they could be confabulating. Either way, we see all memory through the lens of the moment.”
Perhaps the real question buried at the heart of studying superior autobiographical memory isn’t necessarily why we remember, but why we forget.