Article: Eidetic Memory Syndrome

Submitted by Benjamin Stiglitz. To be published in our upcoming Fall edition.

When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher started the semester with some ice breakers. Now, I have never quite met any student who enjoyed these, but I can only assume teachers love thrusting them upon introverts to try to make them more sociable. As the class went around in a circle, it occurred to me. All I had to do was say my name and one fun fact, that is at least while my mind froze over what exactly is a fun fact about me…

I’m not exaggerating when I say I was paralyzed on what to say – everything coursing through my mind felt boring or obsolete. My peers had given interesting facts like how one of their grandparents owned a cabin or how one made trips to Washington every Christmas to see family. With every fun fact I heard, the less interesting and staler my fact felt by comparison. As it came to my turn, my mind finally kicked into gear. In the end, I said something that I realized later would change the way everyone looked at me.

“I have a really good memory,” I said, which on the surface sounds incredibly boring. Relieved to have my turn over with, I felt my body unclench and  went back to listening to others. The 5-second spotlight was no longer on me.

Most people my age are impressed with my memory; my ability to accurately describe what happened a year ago, or the fact that I remember things they don’t. Part of this ability can most likely be attributed to my anxiety, where a passing glance can cause troublesome thoughts that make the unusual encounter into a traumatic one. My ability to recite the past like I am merely reading out of a book amazes people, and I can only assume that terrifies them as well.

Upon writing this, there have been no scientific findings that prove a human can have a photographic memory. Human memory is meant to be flawed; that’s why even the best memory cannot be used as evidence to convict a criminal. But that doesn’t mean I cannot have really good memory skills; it is just different than what people typically understand. There is no diagnosis of eidetic memory, mostly because we have no idea on how memory works in the first place. No matter how much pop culture propagates the falsehood of eidetic memory being flawless down to a T, scientists can’t catch up and explain why I remember things better than others.

“Eidetic” just means that I develop more vivid memories compared to others, sometimes vivid enough to be remembered by me, and then later forgotten by others. Yet, whenever my memory is brought up, people feel the need to test it. As if I would lie about having a good memory when there are so many cooler things to lie about. However, people still don’t believe me. Sophomore year I was at a friend’s house, and he loved to do psychological experiments on me, with our permission of course, at least as far as I know.

He also ran several tests on my eidetic memory. One of them involved him telling me a 10-digit number once and then asking me throughout the day what that “passcode” was. Even almost 4 years later I remember it was 6512964874, which should give you some insight into how the experiment went. The results astounded him because he himself had a not-so-stellar memory, so the fact that I was able to recall numbers like that amazed him. Yet, all I can feel is a bit like a lab rat, constantly being fed weird tidbits of information in the hopes that one day I wouldn’t remember it. The tests quickly turned from interesting little experiments to what felt like prosecution. It started with simply memorizing some numbers and morphed into feeling like I have to answer these questions correctly to prove I haven’t been lying the entire time.

Everyone I’ve ever met has wanted what I have. When I mention my memory or show it during a conversation, they always say the same thing: “Man, I wish I could remember like you.” But, I feel, there are reasons why most people only have an average memory.

The pain I felt when my ex-girlfriend broke up with me over text, not even wanting to wait two hours so we can at least finish the relationship over the phone. My memory has even imprinted the night into my mind forever in perfect detail. The pain two years later is equal to that in which it occurred. I felt my sides seize up, sort of what I imagine being tazed feels like. My entire body froze as I looked down on my phone and just read the texts on my Samsung S9. I remember I liked to rock back and forth on the wooden stools at my place of work as I silently ran Magic Commander night, but there was no shaking at that moment. My brain felt like shutting down, almost like a computer with too many errors eventually restarting itself in hopes to cure at least some of the issues.

I remember I didn’t respond right away either. I like to think I am a punctual texter, but that night I left her on read. Not because I was trying to ignore her, but because I was trying to ignore what she was saying. When you study grief in psychology, it does not help you go through it faster or easier. The denial was hard, but so was the anger later. It wasn’t your normal anger as you would probably expect from a 17-year-old boy who just went through his first real breakup. No sad breakup songs were being played on my drive home. It was just a silent car, except for the screams of myself as I yelled at nobody. No one could hear, no one really wanted to anyways. I was so caught up in emotion I would focus on the pain in my chest to the point that I wouldn’t notice my foot on the gas, and I would look at the speedometer afterward and see I was speeding 85 in a 60. The twenty-minute drive home was longer than usual and much more emotional but later that night I collapsed on my bed after telling my parents the news, only to lay there for the next couple hours as my brain refused to slow down.

When people bring up that they want to have a memory like me, they never fully realize that with every good memory you can cherish forever, you also receive a painful memory that can still sharpen its teeth and bite into your neck. The only reason why time heals wounds is that we distance ourselves from those memories. Our mind erases the bad and leaves the good in its tracks. But if your mind never does the erasure, then the memory still packs the same punch. The wounds never clot, and the body never fully heals. The psyche is perpetually bleeding from the same wound as my memory continues to pick the scab away.

But it’s not the stuff I do remember that scares me the most, it’s the things I don’t. The fact that my perfect memory has cracks and leaks beginning to show at such a young age. The one thing I hold most dear has already begun to crumble. I look back at the same girlfriend and I can’t quite remember if she wore contacts or glasses more often. A girl I dated for a year and I couldn’t tell you if she wore glasses or not. I can’t remember her voice or any good thing about the relationship that I felt was good enough to stick around for a year.

The fear of forgetting is on top of my list of greatest fears: Athazagoraphobia. Mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia keep me up at night. I lay in bed just trying to imagine what it might feel like to forget everything. But that doesn’t even feel like the worst part of those illnesses. The worst part is that the people don’t even realize they are forgetting.

To that I think: what if my memory is all an illusion I have made up in my head? I cannot forget facts if I never fully realize I have. The river of knowledge may not be dammed up inside my head. There may be several holes where it leaks and turns into tributaries that, at the end of the day, do not reside in my mind. It would make sense seeing how imperfect human memory is. It would also be fitting that I would be overly egotistical on how perfect my so-called “eidetic memory” could be. Because of this, I often feel like my memory is all but my own. The human mind is so easily manipulated and often I feel like my memory is the same. How do I know that it isn’t my mistake when my friends contradict my memory? Whenever I get challenged on memories, my friends always immediately give in knowing that I am probably right. But hours later, I realize that I wasn’t the one in the right.

How many times has this happened? Where I didn’t remember properly and also never realized the falsehood I had believed? I understand my memory is not as airtight as pop culture wants me to believe but is it as airtight as I believe it to be? It could very well be the greatest lie I have ever told myself. My ability to remember could be rooted in the fact that I do not want to forget. My mind avoids the fear by fabricating additional data it knows no one else will remember. Will anyone call me out for saying that I remember when I saw Amazing Spider-Man 2 in theaters and was upset when the clerk sold the last bag of Twizzlers to a set of teenagers before me when in actuality it might have never happened?

Memory is incredibly weak and even more malleable than metal could ever dream to be. Therapy patients often fabricate an entire traumatic incident because the therapist made them feel like the root of their problems was solely due to a specific incident that had never occurred. Yet, the pain I feel from my memories feels too real to be a pure fabrication of my mind. But, would I even be able to tell if I did make it up?

The visceral turning of my stomach when I remember prom of my sophomore year, or when I asked the same girl out originally. Me sitting in the corner having a not-so-minor panic attack as I rocked back and forth, trying to overcome the anxiety of asking a girl to prom. The memories of heartbreak throughout my life or even the memories of me not saying the right words; where I gave a speech on why you should meditate, and people looked at me like I should end the speech by me taking a vow of silence. Does the pain I feel from these memories even exist, or is it a part of the fabrication?

No, the pain feels too real to be all made up in my head. Even if my mind does not often feel like I am fully in control, I know I can feel if my mind is inflicting pain without reason. My head pounds when I can’t retrieve a memory and whenever I cannot remember a speckle of information. So, I have to look it up. It’s not because I want to remember it, but because I feel like I have to.

As I think longer and harder about my self-diagnosed Eidetic Memory Syndrome, I know that maybe it has done more harm than good. The internal lashings I have felt from the same memories over and over again almost don’t feel human. Sometimes I beg myself to let myself forget that these thoughts had ever happened, to fully allow myself to let go of the past so I can further embrace the future.

Whenever someone thinks of eidetic memory, they always think of the person who knows a hundred digits of pi. They never fully think about the guy who keeps himself up at night questioning why he said what he said in eighth grade. I guess if I’m being honest, my greatest fear isn’t forgetting things, it’s not being able to.

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