WASHINGTON - Can you remember what you were doing on March 2, 2007? How about what you had for lunch two weeks ago? Imagine being able to pull up those memories as if they happened yesterday.
There are only a few dozen people identified as having the ability to do that. It is a condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).
When Nima Veiseh paints, he said it is like placing down layers of memories.
“Because I remember things in such an impactful way and that translates into the textures in the art,” he said.
Veiseh is one of about 50 people in the world identified with HSAM – a superior ability to recall specific details of autobiographical events.
“A lot of people may just remember flash frames or stills,” said Veiseh. “For me, it’s as if it’s film, with not just the images, but the sights, the sounds, the feelings. When I go back in my memory, I remember everything from the moment I woke up to what I wore to what I ate.”
Many of us have a hard time remembering what we had for dinner a couple of nights ago. We asked Veiseh what he had a week ago.
“Last Tuesday, I had tuna tartare at Policy Bar,” he recalled.
It took him a while to remember, but he said that is normal. It can sometimes take him a week to recall a memory. But when he does, he goes right back to the full sensory experience of that day.
“Being pulled fully back into the moment and I remembered it as if I was there,” he said.
Veiseh was accepted in a study at the University of Calinfornia, Irvine seven years ago led by neuroscientist James McGaugh.
“I and the people who work with me have been and remain deeply interested in understanding what we believe is the most important ability we have and that’s our memory,” said Dr. McGaugh.
He and his team are looking into how the brains of people with HSAM differ from the rest of the population. So far, they have not uncovered a pattern, but what they have found is one part of the brain is much larger in people with HSAM. It is something that could help solve the mysteries of certain brain disorders like Alzheimer’s.
“We are still in the process of getting a little bit of this information and that information and so on,” said McGaugh. “We don't have an answer to the basis of it yet.”
What they do know is the ability is associated with obsessive compulsive behaviors. For most people, it starts early in life. However, Veiseh traces his superior memory back to December 15, 2000.
“It happens to be the day I met my first girlfriend,” he told us.
Others started noticing how he would remember a certain event. A friend referred Veiseh to the UC Irvine study and the defining moment came when the researchers asked him what happened on August 17, 2008. Veiseh immediately remembered that was when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal.
Painting is an outlet for Veiseh.
“I use my art as a way to channel those senses and those feelings and that impact,” he said. “Not only in a positive, creative way, but quite often in a therapeutic way as well.”
What is the one drawback of his superior memory?
“Forgetting is a luxury I don't have,” Veiseh said.
We asked him about certain dates, but he said it would take him too long for him to retrieve his memories. It is not a split-second recall. For him, it is like a VHS tape that he rewinds.