H-SAM: “What were you doing on your third birthday?”

By | December 4, 2020

As one who is beginning to be concerned about the things I can’t remember…even from this morning…it is strange to find myself flipping to the extreme opposite. That would be people who have a condition identified as H-SAM. It is an acronym for the condition of hyperthymesia. That stands for “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.”

Hyperthymesia is a Greek word combining the prefix “hyper” (meaning “excessive”) and “thymesia” (meaning “remembering.”) Put them together and it makes sense as to what its modern meaning is all about.

It is a condition in which a person can “recall almost every day of their lives in near perfect detail as well as public events that hold some personal significance to them.” We all have seen or known people (sometimes autistic or others with mental illnesses) who have an uncanny ability to remember dates. And there are some who have unbelievable capabilities of doing mathematical calculations, or playing an instrument without any hesitation. They are considered “savants” and can be very happy people who just have an unusual capacity to perform That may be related but it is not the same thing as H-SAM.

These people (H-Sam people) remember personal (autobiographical) details of days in their lives which may not be otherwise significant. They remember all of the events of that day, and when called upon to call them to mind their mind keeps going in a chronological way, moving on and on in that time frame without ceasing. H-Sam people suffer from this condition in that there is no “stop” button to push and their mind becomes cluttered with details of extended periods of time, sometimes pushing out the present and preventing the person from focusing upon their current needs. There are only a few dozen verified cases of H-Sam known to scientists.

People with H-SAM or hyperthymesia may develop psychological issues brought on by the stress and anxiety of being “bombarded” by memory. Some clients of this condition slip into living in the past and not being able to bring themselves to present-day issues, needs, and desires. The fact that H-Sam individuals relate primarily to autobiographical information and events differentiates them from people who are able to compute data or recall information about others not specifically related to them. As I said above, they find themselves “re-living” the event, slipping back to those days decades ago and taking up residence there.

One of the problems for H-SAM people is not that they can remember; to the contrary, it is that they are unable to forget. I heard a woman on NPR who has the H-SAM condition. She is unable to forget the details of the day her husband died a number of years ago. She is burdened by the grief, and is unable to move on in her life, since the details of that day are so vivid and real to her. It disables her, and leaves her incapable of maturing in her emotions.

Obviously, my spelling out of information about H-SAM is limited, based upon a very cursory review of information regarding the condition. I chose it to write about because it is so fascinating, and it is my belief that not many people know of it. If you are interested in more details about it or hyperthymesia I would suggest that you start with the information on the internet, and I am sure there are magazines and books that are more authoritative.