The woman who remembered everything

Human memory is different from computer memory in many important ways. Computers store information in specific locations. While there are ways of storing meta-data with each piece of information, computer memory is very limited when it comes to context. For example, the stored image of your boyfriend may be given a title and a short description, but when the computer retrieves it, it will be a hard task to infer from the image multi-dimensional data such as character, events about this person, emotions, etc.

Unlike computer memory which is designed human memory is the product of millions of years of evolution. Mammalian brains such as ours do not use fixed-address systems, but store memories in a very haphazard fashion; memories tend to overlap, combine or simply disappear. Neuroscience has not yet cracked the code of human memory but it does give us some first clues: our memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Whenever we “remember” a rich set of data is retrieved which is contextually intertwined with emotions. Human memories are never like a video or a photograph or a text file; they are never “objective”. They are always “subjective”, i.e. value-laden. The plasticity of our brains might be the cause for our memories changing over time, or under a variety of emotional conditions (such as stress, excitement, sadness, etc.).

Jill Price

An interesting case made news several years ago of an American lady named Jill Price who could remember virtually everything. Ms Price had a perfect recollection of every single event in her life since she was 12 years old. Her case has been studied by neuroscientist James McGaugh of UC Irvine. McCaugh and his collaborators named Ms Price’s syndrome as “hyperthymetic”, a Greek word meaning “supermemoriser”. Although, understanding what exactly happens in Ms Price’s brain is beyond the capabilities of current brain scan technologies, current observations indicate that her brain shares many characteristics of people with obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Ms Price is obsessive in “collecting” items (e.g. puffy toys) that remind her of things that happen to her; she is also going over and over again thinking about things that happen to her (she keeps a detailed diary), something that tends to reinforce neural pathways. Nevertheless these observations explain almost nothing. Her capability of remembering everything is truly “super-human”.

Rachel remembered a mother

Imagining intelligent androids of the future has failed to deal satisfactorily with the issue of memory. In Blade Runner, for example, the android Rachel has been programmed with false memories; a childhood she never had.

Tyler Corporation have given her photographs of her “parents” which Rachel treasures, since they convince her that she had a human past. Such emotional reaction to memories requires a human-like brain. Androids that can hold memories in a human-like fashion will be prone to all the problems that we face with our memories; ultimately we lose them, or they mutate into a subjective narrative that reflects our inner wishes rather than the facts that actually took place.  Like humans, androids must be able to lie about their past, without necessarily intending to. But that seems like a waste. Unless human programmers decide to install faulty memories in their creations, intelligent androids will be more like the hyperthymetic Ms Price.

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