In 2010 the American Television show, Sixty Minutes, aired a fascinating story about individuals who remember the details of every day of their lives, a trait called “superior autobiographical memory.” Many of the people profiled had low-grade obsessive-compulsive disorder, manifested by extremely organized homes.
Marilu Henner, star of the TV sitcom Taxi, was interviewed about these tandem characteristics. Her home, like mine, was noteworthy for its tidiness. When my stepmother and I discussed the story a few weeks after its broadcast, she asked, “Who did those people remind you of?” Me, I responded, and she concurred.
Until my fifties, I didn’t understand that my mind worked differently from other people’s minds. Although I don’t have superior autobiographical memory, in my family I’m considered the person who “remembers everything.” My first day of nursery school, including what I wore, whom I played with, and what activities I engaged in at recess, are all vivid.
I have an encyclopedic knowledge of film going back to 1970, and since I’ve seen at least fifty to sixty movies a year in theaters for over forty years, that amounts to a boatload of esoteric film factoids. My favorite party game is to ask someone to name a popular movie from three decades ago, and invariably I’ll remember exactly when and where I saw it.
Recently someone in my group office casually mentioned the film Altered States. I immediately announced that it was released in 1980 and it turned William Hurt into a movie star. My colleague seemed startled by my knowledge of these details, but this is normal for me. However, until a few years ago, I’d always associated my grasp of movie trivia with a love of film, not with the mechanics of my mind.
In addition, I knew the way I verbally recalled events sometimes drove people crazy. Friends and family often hustled me along as I told stories, which I accepted, knowing my head was crowded with more details than they cared to hear. I understood that the details prominent to me were overwhelming for others, and I needed to be mindful of not burdening people by verbalizing them.
In my fifties, I began to connect these separate phenomena: a memory that goes back to three years old, my recall of where and with whom I’d seen thousands of films and the boundless details attached to almost all my life’s experiences.
As I began to grasp these connections, I realized the way my mind works is not the norm. Now I embrace the full benefits and burden that come with this acknowledgment.
As a mental health provider, I’m able to remember endless details about my patients’ lives, which they appreciate. This validates them; I listened and remembered. I’m happy they experience this trait positively. I recently encountered a patient I hadn’t seen for a couple years. I immediately remembered the specifics of his mental health history and the stressors that brought him into the psych ward numerous times.
My friends appreciate my memory for the same reason. They know I’m paying attention to them when I mention something they’ve forgotten that occurred years ago. The details of my life often don’t fade, adding endless layers to each experience. Similarly, when I’m able to recall the entire film career of an actor or director, it enhances the depth of the film I’m seeing that day.
But details can also be burdensome. Sometimes I’d prefer to turn off the endless buzzing in my brain. So many details zipping around like pinballs become exhausting, and I need to be purposeful in my efforts to relax. I meditate and walk often.
On my walks, I focus on external surroundings and never listen to music. I work hard to be concise when speaking, and I often fail, but not for lack of trying.
Autism Speaks (https://www.autismspeaks.org/), the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, offers a platform that embraces neurological diversity.
Although I don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder, I relate to their platform and support it. I’ve adopted a similar view of my neurology and now consider my mind not better or worse, but just different. And a different kind of mind, as they say in the movies, can be beautiful.
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