This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
If you take any book in the Harry Potter series, open a page at random and start reading, 29-year-old Rebecca Sharrock will chime in from memory. “There are all kinds of courage,” I begin, reading from page four of the Sorcerer’s Stone and without hesitation Rebecca retorts: “it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies…”
Rebecca can do this because she remembers every single moment from her life, in chronological order, with a completely bizarre level of detail. In her particular case, she recalls memories in hyper-realistic flashbacks that include scents, word for word snippets of conversations, and at times even physical pain. This rare skill is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) and Rebecca is one of around only 80 individuals internationally diagnosed with the condition.
Naturally, I wanted to know everything about Rebecca’s memories, her brain, and how living with an encyclopedic knowledge of her own timeline has affected her world. So I called her at her home in Brisbane and asked.
VICE: What’s the very first thing you remember?
Rebecca Sharrock: I remember being in a dark place, with a reddish light and I had my head between my legs, so I’m assuming that’s when I was in the womb but I didn’t know my age at the time. That’s the earliest I can go back, as my memories are always in chronological order.
Okay, wow, I’m just going to test you a few more times. What do you remember of your second birthday?
It was just before my sister Jessica was born, but I didn’t realize my mom was pregnant at the time. I remember sitting at the table and I had a cake with plastic trains on it, but I was more interested in the trains than I was in the candles. Once we had the cake which had tinsel around it, I took the trains off and they were my favorite toys for a few months. At that age, I didn’t know I was turning a different age, I just knew that something was a different.
What’s your single most vivid memory?
The older my memories are, the more vivid they get. Although my newer memories aren’t as deep and intense for me. I remember being three years old and sitting on my bed at my grandparents’ house. I asked my mom about what we had for dinner a few weeks earlier. She would always respond by saying “I don’t know Becky, it was a long time ago,” to which I always used to say “but someday right now will be a long time ago too.” And she always used to say “but by then you won’t remember it.”
How intense are your memories?
I remember everything. I’m very particular with smells as that’s always a vivid part of my memory recollection. If I’m going out somewhere and I want to feel a particular way before I leave, I’ll put on a particular scent from a happy memory.
How is HSAM tested or proven? what was the testing process like?
It was a very long process. My parents started by contacting the McGaugh/Stark lab at the University of California Irvine. This was the lab where HSAM was first discovered in 2006 and it’s the only place you can be officially diagnosed. The whole process then took several years. I had to do various tests, I had to have brain scans. They would ask me certain questions at the beginning of the testing process, record it, then ask me two years later what were the exact things I’d said to them. I was really nervous to do the test at first because they said that most people actually fail when asked what day of the week certain events fell on, or what current affairs happened, but I passed.
Was it important to you to be formally diagnosed?
Absolutely. Before I knew about HSAM, my self-esteem was so low because I thought there was something severely wrong with me. It was good to have an answer. It was the same when I got diagnosed with autism because before that, it was just another unanswered question I had about myself.
I didn’t actually hear about HSAM until I was about 21, but I first realized that something was a bit different when I started socializing more as a teenager. I found that I fixated on things more than my friends would. Before being diagnosed, I just put it down to being a part of my OCD, which I also have.
Would you say that HSAM is more of a blessing or a curse?
It’s a mix of both. It’s a curse because I can’t forget bad experiences and I relive all the emotions, which can often ruin my day. But a positive thing is that I do relive happy experiences, such as today where I’ve been reliving my childhood memories.
While you're here and thinking about how weird brains are, you should check out this VICE documentary:
Do you have to avoid certain events or scenarios, knowing you’ll vividly remember them forever?
I have to definitely take a lot of caution. I have to keep up with current affairs for future memory tests, so I prefer to read the newspaper. If I see something confronting on the television news, it can really stay in my mind and last forever. I take medication to control this anxiety so if it’s a day that I know could potentially cause me stress, like going out Christmas shopping, I’ll take a Valium as a precaution. My therapist has given me strategies to try and avoid these situations, but yeah, sometimes they’re unavoidable.
How do you feel when people try and ask you to prove your condition, or try and test your knowledge?
When people are asking me to prove things, I sometimes feel a bit awkward and embarrassed—like I’m just a show pony. And sometimes people ask me to prove my HSAM in a really skeptical way. I’ve had people sending me messages saying I’m full of lies.
If there was a complete cure for your condition, would you take it?
I’d take it to get rid of the bad memories in a heartbeat, but I do want to keep all my happy memories. They’re still figuring out what part of the brain controls short-term and long-term memories, so they’re looking for safe ways to potentially turn on or off different memories.
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