05 January 2017


In the recent London Review of Books, I read an entry in article by Alan Bennett that was entitled “Diary,” that describes hyperthymesia as “a rare medical condition defined as being marked by ‘unusual autobiographical remembering.”  I am amused by the notion that autobiographical remembering might be considered “a rare medical condition.” As myself a hypochondriac, I suffer from several rare and not so rare medical conditions, and am always interested in discovering a new potential malady from which I might now or in the near future suffer, but hyperthymesia can be found in neither Dictionary.com or in the Oxford English Dictionary. Alphabetically the latter moves from hypersthenia—extreme or morbid excitement of the vital powers—to hyperthesis—in philosophy the transposition or metathesis of a letter from a particular syllable to the preceding or following syllable (a definition I don’t understand since the example offered appears in Greek). There are numerous other hypers- listed in the dictionary but not hyperthymesia. I do, however, find hyperthymesia on Wikipedia. There I read that “American neurobiologists Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, and James McGaugh (2006) identified two defining characteristics of hyperthymesia: spending an excessive amount of time thinking about one's past, and displaying an extraordinary ability to recall specific events from one's past.” Why either of these characteristics might be considered a medical condition mystifies me.
     The question I want to consider first concerns the identification of hyperthymesia as a rare medical condition? Of course, controversy surrounds the diagnosis, with some arguing against the actuality of the condition and merely ascribing the ability to remember so much to a . . . well, to good memory skills. To those who ascribe hyperthymesia as a rare medical condition, hyperthymesiacs, they seem to have little control over their stream of memories and hence, can’t focus (nor function capably) in the present. This might suggest that the flow of memories occurs without provocation, as an unbroken and interminable narration of past events occurring without particular stimulation. Personally, I find this difficult to accept. Outside of an isolation chamber exists a world and no one knows exactly what it is in the individual’s world that might provoke any one thought from rising to the surface of an ever-moving stream (I think here of Proust and his madeleines), though one can, I think, understand the motive for the appearance of any one particular thought,¾Proust redux. But then, as Joyce and Freud taught us, that thought exists in a stream flowing seemingly without effort but affected by the complexities of the speed, location and depths of the waters and by that which lays immediately and subterraneously below the surface and the conditions of the atmosphere that sits above it, all of which factors influence the movement of the stream and raise to the surface of the stream’s movement any number of seemingly random thoughts which complicate its movement further.
     I might suggest that hyperthymesia consists in the capacity to recognize one’s personal past in everything in the world. Every object perceived recalls an object relation and use. Perhaps that in many cases this would become a heavy burden but hardly a rare medical condition. Were every event or appearance of an object to call up a former (and yet still active) object relation and even use would involve constant reflection and recognition of the personal past in the present. I suppose in such a case nothing would ever seem new, and all forms of surprise would exist not in the appearance of any object but in the connection that object would stimulate in recall. Little would appear as what it actually is in the present but rather, all focus would be on what the object might mean and from where that meaning derives, and that would (for hyperthymesiacs and for everyone else) necessarily always be defined autobiographically. We see really only what is meaningful individually to each of us. The past would always be somewhat present, and for some might represent a heavier burden than for others. Hyperthymesiacs might not be physically slumped over by the weight (though carrying the weight on one’s shoulders is a common cliché for such occurrences) but she might appear a bit distracted much of the time. Not whimsical but abstracted. I have known such people. I have been such people.
     Perhaps the “cure” for this “rare medical condition” might be the learned ability to forget. But I wonder how the art of forgetting might be learned. Torah says that when the people are settled in the land they should blot out the memory of Amalek and what he did to them on their journey out of Egypt, but then Torah immediately after cautions “Do not forget.” Does Torah mean do not forget to remember or do not forget to blot the memory which requires remembering. Perhaps hyperthymesia derives from Deuteronomy. This remembering and forgetting is a complex relationship. How to know what to remember and what to forget seems to me an impossible but common condition from which we all suffer.


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