The Memory of an Elephant

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryAre there days in your life that you would rather forget ever happened? Falling down the stairs in front or your entire class or an embarrassing fashion faux pas? By the same token, there are some occasions we wish could remain as fresh in our mind’s eye as the day they occurred — whether it is a wedding day, the birth of a child or a graduation. Scientists have found 4 individuals who possess what is being referred to as “super-memory” — the ability to recall in uncanny detail both private and world events that have taken place. Three of the individuals are male; the lone female was the first to be recognized.

MemoryFunctional MRI (fMRI) of the brain showed two enlarged regions: the caudate nuclei and the area of the temporal lobe responsible for retaining information (see our reviews on fMRI, part 1 and 2). Many studies, including a publication by Dr. Norman White from the Department of Psychology at McGill University, have shown that damage to the caudate nucleus results in impaired memory. Huntington’s disease, a hereditary disorder with memory loss and abnormal movements, is caused by a lesion in this area of the brain.

The inability to put details out of your mind can be a blessing and a curse. Suppression of thoughts or memories which cause distress is considered by psychologists to be one of the mature coping mechanisms. It appears as though those who have super-memory would be unable to accomplish this successfully. Jill Price, the first person identified, relates her in book The Woman Who Can’t Forget that she often feels anguish over the constant flood of recollections.

Investigations into this phenomenon are still in the preliminary stages as scientists continue to recruit potential subjects. In the future, studies on persons with super-memory may provide researchers with answers as to how we retain information and may be the key to diseases where memory is affected such as Alzheimer dementia and Parkinson disease. However I’m sure that there are times when these four people yearn to just forget.


N WHITE (2008). Some highlights of research on the effects of caudate nucleus lesions over the past 200 years Behavioural Brain Research DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2008.12.003

Maria Goddard, MD

Maria Goddard, MD, is a medical doctor who has worked in medical research and clinical practice for several years. Her interests include traditional and alternative medicine as well as the sociological implications of certain diseases in particular populations.
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