Although it’s something we rarely give much thought to, the ability to form memories is actually pretty amazing. I mean, they’re like images and scenes from the past that have somehow been stored in our brains.
Some of our memories have sentimental value, some of them are pretty mundane and some can be overwhelmingly painful. And because we’ve all made vastly different experiences, our memories vary greatly. However, what connects us, as humans, is that while we retain some memories, most of them are seemingly lost forever.
But this certainly isn’t the case for everyone on the planet – in fact, there are some people who vividly remember every single day since the very beginning of their lives. It has been estimated that there only about 80 such people in the world, and this phenomenon stems from an incredibly rare condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). As you may have guessed, the condition prevents people from forgetting everything, and I mean everything.
Twenty-eight-year-old Rebecca Sharrock from Brisbane, Australia, is one of these 80 people, and, as a result, she is able to recall every single part of her life in great detail, starting from when she was only 12 days old.
Yes, as unbelievable as it sounds, Sharrock’s first memory stems from being photographed in the driver’s seat of her parents’ car a mere 12 days after her birth. It’s pretty amazing because it gives us an insight into what goes through the mind of a newborn baby. We’ve all wondered what exactly we were thinking as babies, but most of us will never know. Rebecca Sharrock, however, does know what babies think about in their day-to-day lives, purely because of her exceptional memory.
(Learn more about this extraordinary story from the woman herself in the video below.)
“My parents carried me to the driver’s seat of the car (my father’s idea) and placed me down upon it for a photo,” Sharrock recalled in a blog about her very first memory as a 12-day-old baby.
“As a newborn child, I was curious as to what the seat cover and steering wheel above me were. Though at that age I hadn’t yet developed the ability to want to get up and explore what such curious objects could be.”
Sharrock also recalled how, as a newborn, she would observe the toys in her crib, the fan near her bed, a Minnie Mouse toy she was scared of and the “itchy satin dress” she wore on her first birthday. She also remembers that she started dreaming at about 18 months.
Unless there’s a fairly sizable age gap between siblings, older siblings often don’t have many, if any, memories of the day their younger sibling arrived in the world. However, Sharrock, whose sister Jessica was born just after her second birthday, remembers this in vivid detail:
“I didn’t understand what a sister was back then and was far more interested in playing with my toy train. Though I did get up to some mischief over the next year or so, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t an only child anymore, and I had to share everything with a sister, as well as give away my old clothes and toys.”
“It is true that I’m one of about 60 people in the world identified as having a very unusual memory which is called HSAM (or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). This makes me unable to forget any day of my life, and I’m also constantly reliving my past (emotionally) in clear-cut detail.”
“However those of us with HSAM are not alone with having memories from the time when we were under four years old. In fact the vast majority of the people I’ve come across also have distinct memories of them welcoming a sibling to their family as a toddler, as well as early birthday and Christmas celebrations.”
“It’s also questionable as to whether or not anybody ever truly forgets anything. In its early stages, people with dementia and Alzheimers can almost always retrieve distant memories with ease, which had previously seemed forever forgotten.”
“At first, their Short Term Memory appears to weaken, but their Long-Term Memory appears to strengthen. Though once the damage goes deeper into the brain in dementia’s later stages, all kinds of recollections seem to disappear. Yet I must add here that on a visit to a nursing home we came across a woman who had reached a stage of complete dementia, but was throwing her arms about and kept saying that she was feeding the pigeons with her grandmother (which she did indeed do in her early childhood).”
Considering Sharrock had known for her entire life that she was able to recall things that had happened when she was a newborn, she found herself at odds with mainstream studies on human memory:
“When I was reading a newspaper in mid 2014, I came across an article that said that it was impossible for us to remember personal events which happened to us before we were four years old.”
“After I’d finished reading the article I was thinking ‘what absolute nonsense’. I’m currently in the process of writing a book My Life is a Puzzle, and memories of events up to the age of four fill a very long chapter.”
The more you learn about HSAM, the more extraordinary it appears. Indeed, the condition is not simply marked by the fact that it allows people to remember the entirety of their lives, but also that it gives people like Sharrock the ability to retain certain information. For instance, Sharrock can recite the entire Harry Potter series from beginning to end.
Sharrock is currently participating in two scientific studies on human memory in the US and Australia. She is hoping that the research will help those with memory loss, especially dementia patients.
“There is so much we need to discover about the human brain as well as how our memories work. Firstly our brain is the control centre of our entire existence, and secondly memories make up everything that we’ve learned (consciously and subconsciously). There are many different kinds of memory that we all possess and those of us with HSAM can only recall autobiographical memories in precise detail. Autobiographical memories are recollections of what we’ve (personally) experienced in our lifetime.”
Since most of us will eventually reach an age where we are vulnerable to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, studies involving people like Sharrock could be the way forward.