Monday, April 14, 2008

Hooley Dooley! Stephen Jay Gould wrote a description of a possible case of Hyperthymestic syndrome way back in the 1990s, and the authors of the seminal paper on Hyperthymestic syndrome failed to notice that the subject of the paper is a synaesthete!

I don't know if you have heard about "Hyperthymestic syndrome" yet. It is a term that was invented just a few years ago, and it is supposedly only recently known to the world of science. The two defining characteristics of Hyperthymestic syndrome are very superior autobiographical memory and spending an abnormal amount of time thinking about one's personal past.

On page 172 of the book "Questioning the millenium" by the late Stephen Jay Gould is a description of an autistic savant man who "... can tell you something that happened on every individual day for the last twenty years of his life." Often the events recalled seem trivial. Gould explains that when it is possible to verify these often trivial memories, they are always accurate. The scope, triviality and accuracy of this autobiographical memory ability fits perfectly with the only scientific report of a case of Hyperthymestic syndrome that I believe has ever been published, the case history of the female A. J. published in the journal "Neurocase" in 2006. In this paper the authors wrote that "And although AJ is not autistic , nor do savants remember autobiographical information, there are certain similarities between them." So savants don't remember autobiographical information? A pig's backside they don't!

Does the case described by Gould meet the second criterion for Hyperthymestic syndrome? Does or did he spend an abnormal amount of time thinking about his personal past? Autistic people and savant people always have a tendency to focus very deeply on what is of interest to them/us, and this involves spending an "abnormal" amount of time thinking about the one thing. If anything holds the interest of an autist, one can safely assume that the autist spends an "abnormal" amount of time thinking about it. I like to think of Asperger syndrome as a state that is the opposite of ADD.

So who is the young man that Gould wrote about? He is Gould's autistic savant day-date calculator son named Jesse. The last chapter of this book is about the methodologies of savant day-date calculators and how Gould figured out Jesse's own day-date calculating algorithm. The title of the last chapter is "Five weeks" and it is interesting and well-written (as you'd expect of Gould's writing).

It probably wouldn't surprise anyone that there might be cases of autistic savantism that also appear to meet the criteria for Hyperthymestic syndrome, but there was one thing that really shocked me about the first published paper about Hyperthymestic syndrome. On the top of page 42 of the paper is a very nice description of AJ's two different synaesthesias involving her memory for years and for months. These are variants of the type of synaesthesia known as "Number form synaesthesia", but in AJ's case instead of plain numbers being the concepts arranged in idiosyncratic spatial mental forms, she has years and months arranged spatially in her mind. There is no indication anywhere in the paper that the authors recognized that AJ has a form of synaesthesia. This is a most remarkable oversight in view of the fact that a very famous case of a synaesthete who had a prodigious memory (Solomon Shereshevskii described by Luria) was described at length in the Neurocase paper about AJ. It didn't occur to the highly qualified academic researchers that AJ might have synaesthesia like Shereshevskii? Holy cow! And there is absolutely nothing new about Number Form Synaesthesia. It's not a novel concept in psychology. Sir Francis Galton described it way back in the 1800s in a book and also in a conference paper.

This all supports what I had suspected all along; that the so-called Hyperthymestic syndrome is nothing new and it is linked with autism, savantism and synaesthesia. The authors of the Neurocase paper wrote that AJ is not autistic and is not a calendrical calculator, and they failed to notice that AJ has synaesthesia even though they wrote a nice description of her two synaesthesias in their paper. This whole Hypethymestic business is very much open to questioning and argument. It is even open to questioning and argument from smart-arse weirdo synaesthete housewives who write obsessive blogs.


Gould, Stephern Jay (1997) Questioning the Millennium: a Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. Harmony Books, 1997.

Galton, Francis (1881) The visions of sane persons. Proceedings of the Royal Institution. 9 (May 13) : 644-55.

Galton, Francis (1883) Inquiries into human faculty and and its development.

Number form. (2007, August 20) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:59, April 14, 2008.
[a type of synaesthesia/synesthesia]

Parker, E, Cahill, L, and McGaugh, JL (2006) A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering. Neurocase. Volume 12 Issue 1 February 2006. p. 35 – 49.

Link to my list of references about Hyperthymestic syndrome

copyright Lili Marlene 2008.

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