Saturday, August 30, 2008

The days and the years start to blur together .....

I was browsing through some online comments about a story about a radio interview with Jill Price, who has written a book The Woman Who Can't Forget about her life with hyperthymestic syndrome, which is a condition in which people have extraordinary autobiographical memory ability. I believe that I have a condition that has some similarities with hyperthymestic syndrome. I have very old and not particularly interesting memories jump out at me for no apparent reason, and it's definitely not PTSD. I was rather stunned by a somewhat rude and skeptical comment that was posted underneath the story about Price, but it wasn't the rudeness that I was struck by.

"If she truly had perfect recall, she would have no way to distinguish between recent memories and distant memories." "For example, she would never know where she parked her car at the office. In her mind, there would be no difference in her memory of parking her car two days ago or twelve years ago. How would she know which memory was the most recent, and in turn, which memory to take action upon?"

It's a good question, and Jill Price is the only person who can answer it. I can say that I have exactly the problem described in the comment, and it is annoying at times. But isn't this type of problem completely normal? Doesn't everyone find it impossible to distinguish between old and new near-identical memories? Am I really a freak? Surely not. The cause of this annoying memory phenomenon cannot be dismissed as absent-mindedness; I know it happens because of a troublesome persistence of older memories, which cannot be distinguished from more recent memories, because the old and the new have nothing much to distinguish between them. The solution to this problem is simple; just park in the same or similar spot each time I visit the same car-park. It does also help to have a car that has an appearance that is unique in some way that is visible over a distance. No white Commodore sedan for Lili Marlene. Does my problem, and my solution, explain why autistic people often have a "need for sameness and routine"? Is this memory phenomenon an autistic trait? Do autistic people routinely suffer from troublesome and misunderstood side-effects of a superior memory ability when people interfere with the self-discovered strategies that they use to avoid such problems? Autistic people are known for having superior memory ability, as are some synaesthetes, so this seems like an explanation that could be applied to the behaviour of other people who share my unusual neurotypes.

One person who was the subject of an old case study from the psychological literature is more famous than any other for being a person who was supposedly had cognitive difficulties because he was unable to forget things. His real name was Solomon Shereshevskii, but being the subject of a case study he was given the anonymous name of "S" by A. R. Luria in his famous book The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Shereshevskii had synaesthesia in abundance, a number of different types, and it appears he experienced synaesthesia as an interference to his thought processes. I have a number of different types of synesthesia, and it is a frequent but subtle experience, and to a minor degree it does influence the direction of my thoughts. Lorna Wing, who is recognized as an expert on Asperger syndrome, has mentioned Solomon Shereshevskii as a possible case of Asperger syndrome, but she has also made it clear that the evidence necessary to make a conclusive diagnosis is no longer available. Like Shereshevskii, in my case there is some evidence implicating me as a case of AS, but this will never be confirmed with a professional diagnosis. I would never have dreamed that I would have so many things in common with some dead Jewish Russian mnemonist neurological case study subject bloke.

Another memory-persistence problem that I have is remembering whether I washed my hair yesterday (or was it the day before?) I strive to wash my hair every second day, but there is no way in the world that I am ever able to pull out my memory of yesterday's shower from all of those other thousands of memories of hugely unmemorable showers past, in the same bathroom. To achieve this would be Mission Impossible. So I stand there in the bathroom wasting time examining the state of cleanliness of my hair each damned morning. If you think this memory-persistence problem means I have a generally infallible memory, you'd be wrong. I have a poor memory for the content of past conversations, and I am not much good at keeping track of my knowledge of the experiences of other people. I guess this could be explained as a deficit in "theory of mind". I often forget to do things that I had intended to do. Memories of past experiences are different to memories of recent resolutions to do things. I am sure two completely different memory systems come into play with these two different types of memory. The thing that stands out as different and possibly superior about my memory is my spatial memory; my memory for cities, highways, homes, kitchens, buildings, regions, workplace computer systems (virtual space), national parks, university campuses, country towns, imagined dream landscapes, gardens, library shelf floor-plans and suburban streets that I have moved through and seen any time in my past. It appears that these memories never die, but that's not the same as saying they are always easy to access. I guess there must be many advantages to having a generally good memory, and I've probably benefited in many ways over the years, but I'll never enjoy the anonymity of driving a white sedan of the most popular make and model.

References and further reading

Elfakir, Abdelhadi (2005) Mémoire et autisme: de la neuropsychologie à la psychanalyse. Le cas de Cherechevski. I’Information Psychiatrique. Novembre 2005, Volume 81, Number 9, p.763-70.
[French paper that appears to be arguing that S. Shereshevskii was autistic]

Gura, David (2008) Woman who can't forget. Blog of the Nation. NPR. May 19th 2008.
[the comment quoted in my blog is from the comments posted here]

Luria, A. R. (1968) The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. (translated from the Russian by Lynn Solotaroff) Jonathan Cape. 1968.

Schacter, Daniel L. (2001) How the mind forgets and remembers: the seven sins of memory. Souvenir Press, 2001.
[an excellent book about memory]

Wing, Lorna (1981) Asperger syndrome: a clinical account. Psychological Medicine. 11, p.115-129.
[Shereshevskii mentioned as a possible case]

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008.
(please don't quote without citing source)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Has Lili Marlene discovered another form of synaesthesia?

Would you call this “music-motion synaesthesia” or “music-spatial synaesthesia”?

The other day I was looking through a dusty drawer full of old cassette tapes, hoping to find some old musical gem, with the intention of horrifying/fascinating our teens, and reliving the music of my youth.

While playing an old favourite track “That’s Pep” from the Devo LP “Freedom of Choice” I remembered that I have always been most impressed by the fact that this track has a simple, cute, twangy electronic sound repeated often in it that goes in a circle. Those clever technical Devo people! How did they manage to coax some musical notes into going in a circle? It’s no wonder they look so smug, in those red plastic hats.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Another one to add to your list of different types of synaesthesia: visually-induced auditory synesthesia, or in plain language, hearing-motion synesthesia.

You may wish to watch the short video from Newscientistvideo on YouTube to see/hear whether you have this condition.

The research that is reported and discussed in the references listed below is the third study of synaesthesia that I am aware of in which the researchers demonstrated that a particular type of synaesthesia is a genuine difference in neurological functioning by ingeniously designing a test in which the synaesthete subjects out-performed the normal control subjects. The fact that some synaesthetes can be demonstrated to out-perform people who are neurologically normal in some tasks brings us back to the questions of why do at least 1% of the population have synaesthesia, have the genes for synaesthesia been selected by the forces of evolution, and are these genes generally useful things to have?

Researcher Melissa Saenz is quoted in Scientific American as saying “I think of these people as having an enhanced soundtrack in life”. I think I’d agree with that.

List of links about hearing-motion synaesthesia

Carpenter, Siri (2008) Seeing is Hearing: New Type of Synesthesia Discovered. Scientific American Mind. August 2008.

Hubbard, Edward M. (2008) Synaesthesia: The Sounds of Moving Patterns. Current Biology. Volume 18 Issue 15 August 5th 2008 p. R657-R659.

Motluk, Alison (2008) Screensaver reveals new test for synaesthesia. news service. August 4th 2008.

New Scientist (2008) Some synaesthetes "hear" moving dots. New Scientist. August 6th 2008 Issue 2668, p. 17.

Newscientistvideo (2008) Screensaver reveals new test for synaesthesia. YouTube. added August 4th 2008.

Saenz, Melissa & Koch, Christof (2008) The sound of change: visually-induced auditory synesthesia. Current Biology. Volume 18 Issue 15 August 5th 2008 p. R650-R651.
Paper at Scribd:

The home page of Melissa Saenz, Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology
(with pictures of brains and stuff)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Every name a legend!

A referenced list of 134 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum