Sunday, July 29, 2012

A celebrity with hyperthymestic syndrome explains

"For all these seemingly amazing capabilities, people who have HSAM are not classified as savants or autistic. We are not calendar calculators with a system. For people with HSAM, the knowledge of days and dates is almost built in. We aren't using mnemonic or memory strategies to remember events. When asked how we do it, we all say the same thing: "I just see it! It's just there."

- an excerpt from the recently published book Total Memory Makeover by the American actress and author of several self-help books Marilu Henner, who has also been identified as a case of the memory gift syndrome formerly known as hyperthymestic syndrome, hyperthymesia, superior autobiographical memory, highly superior autobiographical memory and now known simply as HSAM. What it might be known as in 2013 is anyone's guess. 

A few things in this quote strike me as interesting. Firstly, there is the almost-universal impulse in high profile people identified with interesting cognitive gifts to distance themselves from autism, which is understandable considering how the autistic spectrum has been vilified for as long as it has been defined. And it is indeed fair enough for any person  who do not see them self as disabled to distance them self from a condition that is defined as a disability. An odd thing about this quote is the supposed basis of the claim that people with HSAM are neither autistic nor savants, the assertion that they do not calculate nor use a memorizing system. My understanding of savants, including autistic savants, is that they are thought to have mysterious powers and are incapable of explaining how they do their feats, so therefore can't be said to be calculators or mnemonists. The supposed world authority on savants, Dr Darold Treffert, asserts often that savants have mysterious, inexplicable and natural powers. I don't believe for a minute that this is an adequate explanation of savantism, but many people take his views seriously, so Henner seems to be using a definition of an autistic savant that is the opposite of the dominant view of how savants operate. Why?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this quote is a bit that many people might fail to appreciate the significance of. Henner claims she and co-HSAMs don't calculate, but simply see. I guess she is referring to seeing memories, but one wonders how one could literally see a day's date, which is an aspect of autobiographical memories that HSAMers apparently remember, along with what happened at the time. I hope Henner explains exactly what she sees in her book, but the important thing is that she says her memory takes the form of a sensory experience, not an abstract idea or a verbal experience. She apparently has visual memories. Would that be visual thinking? Can't be, because visual thinking is supposed to be autism, isn't it? Whenever I think of the concept of visual thinking I see the celebrity autist Temple Grandin, with her cowboy-styled shirt buttoned right up. 

Another couple of interesting things that I've noticed, about Henner's book in general. One is the way Henner barely acknowledged Jill Price in her book as the first ever case of HSAM/hyperthymestic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-today to be identified officially. Another thing to wonder about is the way that Henner has used yet another new term for the same memory gift syndrome that was described in a 2006 journal paper. That makes six different terms for it so far, seven if you consider the fact that this type of feat was pre-2006 simply regarded one of the many interesting things that savants (acquired, autistic, disabled) do.  There's a description of a case in Stephen Jay Gould's 1997 book Questioning the Millennium, but of course he used terms such as savant rather than hyperthymestic or HSAM. Why is the same neurological/psychological concept being renamed so often? Researchers become famous when they publish the first description of an effect or a phenomenon, so they have a motivation to deceptively compete to be associated in the discovery of a new "syndrome". Of course, it is a form of lying (plagiarism?) to write a research report claiming to have discovered a new thing, when they should have been aware that the thing is nothing new and has already been written about, even if this is only in pop science books or other "non-scholarly" publications. There are lots of liars working as scientists.

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