Total recall

Aurelien Hayman can remember almost every day of his life since he was 11. Understanding how his gift works could help the rest of us figure out where we left the car keys, writes Audrey Ward

23 September 2012
The Sunday Times

Cast your mind back six years. What do you remember of October 1, 2006? What day of the week was it, what were you doing, what were you wearing? I don’t remember either, but when I ask the skinny, fair-haired 20-year-old sitting with one leg curled under him, he doesn’t miss a beat: “It was Sunday, cloudy, and the Killers song When You Were Young was on the radio. I was mooching around the house; I fancied this girl at the time and she didn’t fancy me back. I’d asked her out the previous day and she’d said ‘No’.”

He winces at the memory of his 14-year-old self: “How embarrassing!”

It’s not only that day Aurelien Hayman recalls in such vivid detail, but also the day before and even two days before that. On the Saturday he wore a blue T-shirt and hung about the fountain in his native Cardiff with the girl who would rebuff him later that day. On the Thursday he and his sister wandered about their home in the dark because of a power cut.

He can also recall public events filtered through his own experience. When I throw another date at him — March 28, 2005 — he remembers not only preparing for a family holiday to Thailand but adds: “That was around the time the Pope died. The 17th was a Thursday, the 28th a Monday — I think Easter bank holiday.”

He’s right, of course: it was indeed Easter Monday, and Pope John Paul II died five days later. What about June 26, 2009? “A Friday,” he recalls, “the day after Michael Jackson died.” He and his friends went to dinner at Wagamama.

So has Hayman, in his third year studying English literature at Durham University, been honing his skills with one of those memory-training books that occasionally pop up on bestseller lists? Not at all — his strange skill appears completely natural. In fact he is one of only a handful of people in the world to have hyperthymesia — highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). This means the extraordinary capacity to remember almost every day of his life in near-perfect detail from a certain point onwards — quite a feat given that the average person can typically recall no more than 11 events from each year of their life.

Hyperthymesia was first recorded in 2006 by James McGaugh, a neurobiologist, and his team at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). They identified an American, Jill Price, now 46, who could remember almost every day of her life from the age of eight. They have since assessed more than 500 people who they thought might have HSAM, but so far have been able to confirm only 33 cases.

They hope that unlocking the key to the incredible abilities of Price, Hayman and the others will help us to understand why those with Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress remember almost nothing. It might also benefit the rest of us who struggle to remember what happened last week, let alone last year.

IF HAYMAN tries to summon memories of his early childhood, he struggles like eveyone else. “I don’t have a distinct first memory,” he says. “I can remember being three years old and I have vague recollections of my sister being at school and me being at home.”

When he hit 11, though, things started to change. “I wasn’t suddenly aware that I had HSAM,” he says. “It’s not something I realised overnight, but when I was 14 I discovered that I was quite good at remembering things that had happened some years before.”

He initially assumed it was something everyone could do, although his parents, Martyn, an architect, and Dany, his French wife, who raised Hayman and his sister in a bilingual household, were always aware of his talent.

“As a child he was very good at remembering which number related to which of the Mr Men characters. He’d know that No 16 was Mr Noisy,” says Martyn.

When Hayman’s friends began to comment on his ability to recall the first time they had met, he put it down to having a good memory. It was only in September 2011, when one of them showed him an online article about the condition — and a report on America’s ABC News featuring Price — that Hayman began to realise quite how unusual he was.

Fast-forward to earlier this year, when Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, head of psychology at the University of Hull, received an email from Hayman describing how his memory worked. Mazzoni was studying the related — if opposite — area of false autobiographical memories, and came across the research from California.

Mazzoni was initially sceptical, because she thought normal memory could not possibly work in the way Hayman described, but after some initial screening via email and phone, she took her team to meet him.

She asked him to detail what he recalled about certain dates. “We were pleasantly surprised to see that he could remember so much information about his life, with little objective details everywhere,” she says. “When we checked the factual information relating to the day of the week, the weather or a television series he said he’d watched, the information was accurate.”

So how does it happen? As Hayman explained to her, it seems to work subconsciously.

“There’s no method or technique to it; I’m not aware that my memories are being coded.

“It’s like being able to access something in a filing cabinet very quickly. I see myself during that month, and then there are some dates which stick in my mind. It’s like the dates have pictures. It’s a very visual process; there’s a sequence of images.”

Fortunately for Hayman, these memories don’t arrive uninvited and refuse to leave. Price, by contrast, has written about how the condition has plagued her in paralysing ways.

Mazzoni tested him for autism, which often confers extraordinary mental abilities alongside severe developmental or mental disabilities, but ruled it out.

Hayman then spent hours in an MRI scanner. While inside, he was given a date and asked to press a button as soon as a memory from that date popped into his head. He was told to press it a second time once the full-blown memory had appeared. The results showed he has an extremely fast recall.

“In a previous study, where those with average memory were given a similar task, access to the full memory took about 12 seconds, whereas Aurelien took only 1.6 seconds,” says Mazzoni. “It’s as if the memories are portrayed or represented in his mind as facts. A date leads directly to that memory representation for that day.”

Equally intriguingly, she found different parts of his brain were being involved in the process from those of the average person. “What is activated during his initial access to the memory is the occipital areas — which indicate that the visual information is extremely strong — and some areas in the left frontal lobe,” she says. The left frontal lobe deals with language, using it to define facts. “While access to memories in the average person is done through a retrieval process in the right frontal areas of the brain, the activation of those specific left areas suggests he retrieves personal memories as facts.”

Overall, the results showed a very strong visual activation when he remembers. “I don’t think he tries to recall the memories the way we do,” said Mazzoni.

What sets Hayman apart from others with extraordinary memories, such as Dominic O’Brien, a mnemonist and eighttime world memory champion — who made it into the Guinness Book of Records for memorising the order of 2,808 playing cards after looking at each one just once — is his instant recall, deeply personal and naturally occurring.

Mazzoni is unsure as to whether the condition is genetic. “It could be. Certainly there must be a brain structure that facilitates this process. There must be something unique in his brain. The problem is that we really don’t know what it is.”

Hayman’s father claims to have a good memory, but it’s nothing like his son’s. So what could have triggered the change in Hayman’s memory between 10 and 11?

“At that age something changes in how memory is organised — a child’s memory becomes an adult memory,” she says.

His brain, she believes, may be wired in a different way from ours. Or he may have some form of synaesthesia, an unusual perceptual phenomenon in which events in one sensory modality induce vivid sensations in another. Individuals with it may “taste” shapes, “hear” colours, or “feel” sounds.

Mazzoni says this could cause him to be able to organise the content of his brain in an unusual way. “He may have an ability of feeling dates differently from the way the rest of us feel dates,” she says. “Thursday is just Thursday, but for him Thursday has a peculiar feeling.”

Even so, the skill does not exempt Hayman from the kind of regular bouts of forgetfulness that the rest of us experience. “I’ll go to town and forget my wallet; I’ll forget where I put things. It really is quite limited to dates and events in my lifetime,” he admits. Nor is he immune to the deleterious after-effects of too much alcohol. “I do have lapses of memory when I drink but I’ve never had a memory blackout.”

Nor, surprisingly, does his skill seem to help with exams. “I have quite a good memory generally but, because what I have is a good autobiographical memory, I don’t think it can really help with an academic piece of work at university,” he says.

This is backed up by research showing that those who have the condition are actually no better than average at ordinary memory tasks.

MAZZONI believes Hayman’s skill is “an exceptional tool” which, once used intentionally, could help him in whatever he chooses to do. “If he learns how to use it, he might remember so much and be so much quicker than most of us in performing a lot of cognitive activities.”

So what will happen next? Mazzoni will continue to study Hayman’s visual skills in the hope that it may eventually help people with severe memory problems. “We are at a very early stage,” she says, “but it might help us understand that there are different pathways that can be developed in people to overcome deficits in some areas. For example, in people who lose some memory capacity, relying on their ability to encode visual information well might bypass or in part compensate for their loss, and this applies for early forms of Alzheimer’s.”

Maybe the rest of us could do the same as Hayman if we could just work out how to access the information that we might have already encoded. Mazzoni plans to devise a pilot “treatment” and training base for people who can remember nothing unless it’s written down.

While science might regard Hayman’s memory as an experiment, he sees it as a gift. “I think about it very positively. You often read quotes or autobiographies where people say things like, ‘Life is all about the memories,’ so it’s a nice thing to be able to remember them.”

The Boy Who Can’t Forget will be shown on Channel 4 at 9pm on September 25

Brain power

How Aurelien Hayman thinks differently from the rest of us

Right frontal lobe

This is where the average person retrieves information such as dates from long-term memory

Left frontal lobe

Deals with language. Unusually, Hayman uses it to access long-term memory

Occipital areas

For most people, this is the part of the brain where items are pictured. Hayman also uses it to retrieve long-held memories

Improve your memory

Think of a song. Try to recall as many people, places and events it reminds you of

Go back to a significant day, such as your 21st birthday. What do you remember about it and what images come to mind?

Write down everything you can recall about an event 10 years ago. Now look at two photos and add details

Try to remember what you were doing when you heard about, say, the fall of the Berlin wall or the killing of Osama Bin Laden

Find a scent that’s tied to a strong memory. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and make a note of the emotion you feel and the visuals that come to mind

Taken from Total Memory Makeover by Marilu Henner