The Brain Issue: An unforgettable memory

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The Brain Issue: An unforgettable memory

Jake Hausler, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) sophomore, knew he was different since kindergarten, and testing confirmed he had HSAM in 2013. In 2014, his family shared on “60 Minutes” that they realized he had more than just a good memory when he recalled details about the exact day their dog threw up a year later. 

Jake Hausler, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) sophomore, knew he was different since kindergarten, and testing confirmed he had HSAM in 2013. In 2014, his family shared on “60 Minutes” that they realized he had more than just a good memory when he recalled details about the exact day their dog threw up a year later. 

Graesen Joyce

Jake Hausler, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) sophomore, knew he was different since kindergarten, and testing confirmed he had HSAM in 2013. In 2014, his family shared on “60 Minutes” that they realized he had more than just a good memory when he recalled details about the exact day their dog threw up a year later. 

Graesen Joyce

Graesen Joyce

Jake Hausler, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) sophomore, knew he was different since kindergarten, and testing confirmed he had HSAM in 2013. In 2014, his family shared on “60 Minutes” that they realized he had more than just a good memory when he recalled details about the exact day their dog threw up a year later. 

Imagine waking up and remembering what happened on a random day 12 years ago – not just main events, but specific details such as getting out of bed at 7:25, the red flannel shirt your father wore and afternoon rain showers. For people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), these experiences may be part of their daily routine.

Jake Hausler, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) sophomore, knew he was different since kindergarten, and testing confirmed he had HSAM in 2013. In 2014, his family shared on “60 Minutes” that they realized he had more than just a good memory when he recalled details about the exact day their dog threw up a year later. 

“My memory allows me to remember every day of my life until a certain point [when I was very young], but I can’t remember the days before that,” Hausler said. “They will be in vivid detail. I’ll be able to say what day of the week it was and significant stuff that happened in my life.”

Hausler’s family confirmed his ability when they sent him to see James McGaugh, distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. McGaugh first discovered HSAM in the spring of 2000, when he received an email from a woman named Jill Price claiming she had a memory problem.

“When she said she had a memory problem, [I thought] she had a defective memory,” McGaugh said. “I was rather startled to hear her say no, her problem was that she didn’t forget. There had never been a report in the scientific literature of any subject like that.”

I’d say [HSAM] has affected my life because I just know that I’m special and different in a way.”

— Jake Hausler

In 2006, McGaugh and his team published the first paper describing the effects of HSAM. Soon after, hundreds of people started coming forward, believing they also had this ability. McGaugh and his team developed a testing process to discern who actually has HSAM and who just has a strong memory. They tested the subjects on public information like the dates and days of the week of well-known criminal cases and Academy Awards, but for some they also tested them on private information. 

“For a subgroup of these subjects, we obtained from their families all kinds of information about their early histories,” McGaugh said. “We could test them on what was the day of their high school graduation and what was the phone number of the first place they lived after they graduated.”

According to McGaugh, there are only 100 people in the Western Hemisphere proven to have HSAM, one of them being Hausler. At one time, Hausler was the youngest person identified. Because of this, Hausler has been part of many unique experiences.

“Aside from getting the lovely opportunity of going on ‘60 Minutes’ and stuff like that, I’d say [HSAM] has affected my life because I just know that I’m special and different in a way,” Hausler said. “I like that because it’s something rare and I like the ability to be able to bring up stuff that happened in my life on a certain day.” 

Hausler said a common misconception of HSAM is that it helps with school. It is different from a photographic memory in that the memory has to be a lived experience. But not all of Hausler’s experiences are ones he wants to remember. 

“Even though I try to be an optimist, I do remember the negatives, and negative stuff sticks,” Hausler said. “Tragedy and all that type of stuff typically stays with me. I’ll wake up and will remember like ‘Oh, this was a horrible day last year because this happened.’”

While Hausler said it can sometimes be hard to deal with, he would not give up his ability. He sometimes uses his memory to help his mental well-being by remembering good moments to block out the bad.   

McGaugh and his colleague Patrizia Campolongo, associate professor of pharmacology in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Sapienza University of Rome, used functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] to investigate the brain activity of people with HSAM. They found that certain regions of the brain are more active, quicker and interact more than those of people who do not have the ability. 

Even though I try to be an optimist, I do remember the negatives, and negative stuff sticks.”

— Jake Hausler

“I think that we all have all of these memories in our brains and all of this information is stored, and we lack the ability to gain access to that information the way these other subjects can,” McGaugh said. “I don’t have any evidence for that, but that’s what I believe. Our brains are like theirs, except for the ability to access the information that’s there: that’s my hypothesis.” 

Campolongo is still conducting research on the brain. She said memory is the most mysterious function in our brain, so we need to keep studying it.

“Up to now we have studied memory in normal people or in people with memory loss,” Campolongo said. “But by looking at people with an extraordinary memory, I believe that then you can understand how memory works.”

According to McGaugh, all plans, past experiences, personality traits and expectations derive from our memories. He said our lives are made up of moments which are patched together by memory. 

“There is a lot we don’t know about the brain, but it is one of the most exciting inquiries that you can imagine,” McGaugh said. “Everything that you are is based on your memory.”