The Brissie Woman who Remembers Every Day from Being Born
28 year old Rebecca is a Brissie girl who has a memory better than any elephant you're likely to meet. She has a memory that is so incredible that she can remember everything. No really, absolutely e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g!
Rebecca has a rare conditiony called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). It’s a condition that stops people from being able to forget anything, and it’s thought that only around 60-80 people in the world have it. As a result, Rebecca is able to recall every part of her life. She has recounted stories from when she was just 12 days old, 18 months and all through her life.
Rebecca says that she is unable to forget any day of her life, and she's also constantly reliving her past (emotionally) in clear-cut detail. Whew, that must be quite tiring at times. Imagine not being able to forget any of your mistakes or bad decisions....
We had the pleasure of asking her a few questions:l
When did you first realise you were different from your peers?
In truth I began to realise that I was different from my peers when I began going to playgroup at the age of two.
Back then I noticed that fellow children weren’t interested in the same things as me, and as a result of that interacting with them was very difficult (on both sides). Also, I knew from the very beginning that most other children my age had much more advanced verbal skills than I did; in terms of both their processing speed and vocabulary. Those feelings have continued through to the present day, and when I was diagnosed with autism at the age of fifteen it came as no surprise to me.
When I was a teenager and started socialising a little more, I did notice that I dwelled on my past and fixated on issues (negative and positive) more than most people do. However me and my family put that down to my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which I got diagnosed with at the age of sixteen.
I was 21 years old when I discovered (from a 60 Minutes episode my parents were watching) that HSAM existed, and after two years of thorough testing by researchers at the University of California, Irvine I was diagnosed with the condition in May 2013.
What is the toughest part about having HSAM?
The most challenging part about having HSAM would be the way that I often relive negative moments of my past, in addition to the emotions and sensations that I experienced at the time of the memory’s creation. I also like to call these flashbacks (that can come to me involuntarily during moments when I’m supposed to be enjoying myself) “intrusive memories”.
Something else that I find rather irksome is the rarity of HSAM, and therefore the lack of therapy and psychological exercises designed specifically for it. However there are a fair number of mindfulness exercises designed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that also work very well for HSAM.
My favourite exercise is one called “Leaves on a Stream”. Whenever I’m overwhelmed I stop and imagine that I’m pulling out every thought and feeling rushing through my head (regardless of what they are) and placing them onto Leaves on an imaginary stream beside me. At the beginning of the exercise I notice that my thoughts and feelings are fast paced and haywire. Yet after around five minutes I notice them slowing down, and then I begin to feel calm.
Have you ever been able to prank people using your special abilities?
Due to my autism I’m unable to read people’s body language and tone of voice well. However I find that when a person isn’t being truthful key details of their stories being told change significantly with every retelling!
What are your dreams for the future?
In terms of HSAM and general memory research I’m hopeful that ways of preventing and curing terrible diseases like Alzheimers are found. My stepdad’s father who passed away in 2016 had the disease and it was heartbreaking to see his memory and ability to function gradually deteriorating. At the beginning of that phase of his life he was terrified about knowing how he was going to be. But nothing could be done to prevent or cure his Alzheimers. It’s not just elderly people who are getting Alzheimers either. People as young as their 20s have been diagnosed as well, and it’s so heartbreaking and terrifying for us all.
Have you connected with other people with the same condition in other countries?
In 2016, 60 Minutes Australia did a segment about HSAM involving both myself and a young woman named Markie Pasternak. While we were being filmed it was the first time either of us had ever met another person with HSAM. We thoroughly enjoyed talking to each other and the reactions to our unusual way of remembering were received as being normal, rather than incredible and amazing.
Markie and I have remained good friends since the moment we met, and thanks to social media distance is almost completely irrelevant now.