Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Total Recall? Forget It

What would it be like to remember everything that happened to you in detail over the years? This science-fiction premise comes to life on 60 Minutes with people who have been laboratory-tested and diagnosed with "superior autobiographical memory."

This is no parlor trick, watching men and women instantly reach back 20, 30 years or more for a randomly chosen date and bring it back it in verifiable detail--day of the week, weather, news events, their own experiences and the feelings that came with them.

They are being studied at the University of California Irvine by scientists who find bigger temporal lobes (for storing memory) and, perhaps more suggestive, differences in a region deep in the brain involved in skill learning--and obsessive compulsive disorder.

This special state of mind could be useful for salespeople, headwaiters, "Jeopardy" contestants, and in the case of one of them, actress Marilu Henner, for remembering lines in scripts, but may otherwise be a mixed blessing.

“Most have called it a gift," one woman has said, "but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!"

For most of us, selective memory may be the true gift that, until or unless Alzheimer's strikes, helps sort out the meaningful from the mental trash that fills our days. I can recall a loving aunt who would greet me at eight with kisses and butter cookies, letting me reach into a cake tin for a fistful of swirled circles that turned to sweet vapor on my tongue. But most days as a foot soldier in World War II are best forgotten.

Free associating right along, this new take on how the brain works also brings back Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller, "The 39 Steps," in which a musical hall performer named "Mr. Memory" is used by spies to store secret plans in his head and eventually shot dead for his pains. Seeing it at 13, I fell hopelessly in love with a British beauty named Madeleine Carroll, whom I was lucky enough to encounter later in life.

All this makes for happy remembering but sets me wondering how endless memory would work out for politicians. It would be fine for campaigning, recalling constituents' names and such, but how would it be for someone like John McCain? As he now plays his role as the Angry Old Man in Washington, wouldn't he keep tripping over those days when he was running the Straight Talk Express?

Total recall? Forget about it.

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