Autobiographical memory: your personal time machine

Some people remember their lives better than anything else. Very few remember their lives perfectly. How and why we can use autobiographical memory? Is that a blessing or a curse? Can we change our memories? More reading here, here, here, here, here, here.

Autobiographical memory

My own autobiographical memory is not very good. If the police would ask me about an event in my life I might be in trouble. How is it tested?

A generator spits out 10 random dates, and participants must name the day of the week, verifiable events that occurred that day, and other descriptors like what the weather was like.  I score 0 without using mnemonics or diaries. If I would decide to remember on purpose I could do that, but there is no incentive. An average person scores 2 out of 10. People with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) can score 9 or 10 out of 10.  So far about 60 people in the world were tested positive, but very few people actually tested.

How does HSAM work? When asked to recall something, the person “zooms in” at the given time and relives the experience. I heard about people with “eidetic” memory that do not remember what they saw but instead relive the experience. Do not know personally anyone with this skill. I quote:

 “I can’t just memorize things,” she says. “That’s not how it works. I have to see it. I have to be there. I have to live it, or it doesn’t affect me. Researchers believe people with HSAM have the extreme opposite of Alzheimer’s, and uncovering what is biologically different about HSAM brains could help treat Alzheimer’s, depression, and other mental health issues.”

If during Alzheimer the brain shrinks, people with HSAM have abnormally large hippocampus and temporal cortex.

Why do we forget?

Remembering everything is actually unpleasant as the constant stream of memories may disrupt regular life. It is like permanently living in the past. Similar effects sometimes happen with post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessing-compulsive disorder. It is hard to be in focus on here and now.

While it may be cool to relive positive memories and a mere nuisance to relive neutral memories, reliving negative memories is a nightmare. While we occasionally struggle to stay positive, forgive, and move on, for people with HSAM this is a daily necessity.

As normal people we have many options to deal with past traumas:

  • Face them, just like people with HSAM need to do.
  • Ignore them. If the traumas are not too deep we are likely to forget.
  • Block the unwanted event, and move the focus away from it. It can be useful as a short term solution but may backfire.
  • Modify the memories, slowly introducing new elements each time we relive the event. This is usually administered by a specialist but can be successfully self-administered [I have done this in the past].
  • Modify the sensitivity to the memory via exposure therapy.
  • Reduce the credibility of the event by questioning. Was it real, or just a dream?

Being able to forget, we have more tools to deal with other individuals and past events than we would otherwise.

Active memorization

If we actively pay attention and try to memorize, we tend to remember more. We remember even more when we use spaced repetition and recall the events. Writing diaries helps keep the events in memory.

Emotional investment may have different effects on memory. Certain traumatic events are very memorable with so-called “flashbulb memory” effects. Stress may result in partial amnesia.

Some memories are strongly linked to sensory cues like a certain sound or a smell. We can “visualize” these cues and relive the relevant events. For example, when I eat strawberry I sometimes relive the day of Chernobyl’s meltdown (we were somewhat affected ).

Clearly, if we need we can build a mental palace and place there the most important scenes (on the walls) with their time cues (PAO in the corners). In my line of work, I never needed to develop this ability. I know from others it works perfectly well.

Using memory markers

If we associate our memory of an event with a specific mnemonic cue, we can relive the event. The mnemonic cue or marker may be a visualization, a word, or a sensation. We can create these memory markers knowingly.

Probably you have seen depictions of hypnotic procedures, where a keyword is used to return the person in the particular time and mental state requested by the therapist. Of cause, we can place these markers ourselves without intervention. The process is a simple linking: you get one visualization and immediately start playing another. It is even easier if we have a photography or physical evidence from the event we want to revisit.

This article explains quite well various forms of markers for autobiographical memory: place, capabilities, sequences of events.


Above the age of 80, the brain starts to shrink. Sometimes it happens before. About 10% of elderly adults have Alzheimer’s. Eighty percent of them are 75 or older. As women live longer than men, 2/3 Alzheimer patients are females. The numbers are rising faster than life expectancy: since we do not eat organic food, toxins are accelerating the brain deterioration. What does that look like?

I quote: “Early in the disease, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have difficulty making new memories, but memories from early in life are often relatively preserved. Sadly, Alzheimer’s disease gradually takes these memories. If you’re caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you can help him or her manage the onset of memory loss by creating a tangible bank of memories. A memory box or bank might also help reduce feelings of depression, which can occur with dementia.”

Interestingly, linguistic abilities can predict the appearance of the disease many years before the disease happen. This might provide a clue regarding prevention: writing and storytelling. Coffee also helps against the disease. Interestingly, multilingual people while suffering from brain deterioration rarely get dementia, as memories pass through different paths in the brain. The brain is forming new neural paths all the time, and if we practice our brain, the dementia can be minimized. Research suggests that perhaps a quarter of elderly adults who appear cognitively intact are harboring the pathological criteria for Alzheimer’s.

Reuse personal events for visualization

Some people use personal belongings as visualization for specific objects, houses where we used to live as mental palaces, and so on. We also teach this method when other methods do not work. The main issue is simple: we are not very good judging what is real and what is imaginary. If we do not follow strict protocols, we will replace our real lives with some imaginary version.

This replacement already happened to me. Since I used my autobiographic memory when I started to learn mnemonic techniques, I have several fictionalized lives. I do not fully know what happened before I was 30 years old, except for some documented events and things I did not reuse for visualization.

This can be embarrassing. I meet some old friends, and everything is good. They recall some great memories and I nod. Yet I have no idea in which fictionalized version of my life the events took place. Then we understand that I was not even present at the event, and it was some other guy who was our friend.

I actually needed to create a new set of markers to mark my real life differently and place the markers accordingly. If I made mistakes placing these markers, there is no way to know about it.

Is our life worth remembering?

Does it really matter which events took place 30 years ago, and which I imagined? If there are no past life memories, but you have memories from past lives, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

As long as the memory is positive, consistent with our later life and not contradicting other facts we know… Who cares?

One of the stories sometimes discussed in this context is the life of a historical figure. When a historical figure dies, people who knew him often write down their memories. Then they read the memories of each other. Initially, there are some disagreements, but as they reread the stories there is convergence to a single narrative. Suddenly all of them remember the same narrative as if they were present. Even those who could not be present.

Our lives formed reality in its present variation. As long as our memory is consistent with this reality, we can remember events from multiple perspectives.

Make a small experiment. Watch a complex film 5 times, each time writing down in a diary what you saw. Try to remember the film, and when each scene took your attention. This is written in a diary, yet you probably will have a very hard time distinguishing, unless you have HSAM or a flashbulb memory.

You can even redo certain scenes in your life with a partner and replace the original memories with new ones. This is a superpower. Have a bad event with your spouse or your child. Now relive the event with that person, but take into a productive direction. Add a marker to the new event: good chocolate will work. And you have a sort of time machine in your backyard.

Also, flashbacks tend to be harsh. If you retouch some small details, you will get better memories. For example, you can move from being a victim to being a hero.

time machine

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