People who don’t forget can still be tricked with false memories

Despite being able to remember minute details from every moment of their lives, the ability to never forget has other costs for some people.

“Time is the thief of memory,” wrote Stephen King in one of his many books. For some people, however, that is not true. They are gifted with what scientists call highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), which means they can remember in vivid detail every day of their life going back to childhood. But new research shows that even these special people are susceptible to forming false memories, sometimes more than normal people.

The first study of a person, later identified to be Jill Price, with this special ability was published as recently as 2006. Since then the database of HSAM individuals in the US has grown to about 30 people. It includes people like Bob Petrella, who can recall the date he met every one of his friends and acquaintances. Or Brad Williams, who can remember both what he did on any day and what significant world events occurred.

James McGaugh at the University of California Irvine was the author of the 2006 study, and for the past seven years he has been working to understand what makes HSAM individuals so special. A 2012 study showed, for instance, that HSAM individuals have different brain structures. They posses more white matter in areas linked to autobiographical memory. But because there are so few of them “we still don’t know enough to be able to draw robust conclusions”, says Martin Conway, a cognitive psychologist at City University London.

Knowing how HSAM people form memories would be a great leap in our understanding. With graduate student Lawrence Patihis, McGaugh set out to fill that gap. One way to do that would be to test if HSAM individuals are susceptible to false memories. After all, memories are easy to distort. It happens to everyone: the young, the old, the intelligent and the dumb. Now, in a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Patihis finds that HSAM individuals too can be tricked to possess false memories.

Not so perfect
For the study, Patihis recruited 20 out of the 30 known HSAM individuals in the US. They were matched, by sex and age, with 38 people with normal memory. All of the participants were then given three tests.

In the first test, each participant was shown a series of words that were all supposed to be connected to a “lure word”. So if the lure word was “lamp” then they will be shown words like light, table, shade and stand, but not the word lamp. After they have seen the list, they are asked if they saw the word lamp. People with normal memories got the answer wrong seven out of ten times. HSAM individuals too got it wrong just as much.

The second test was more elaborate. It showed a slideshow of photos depicting a crime. After 40 minutes, they were then shown words describing the crime with misinformation sprinkled in them. Then 20 minutes later they were tested to see how many people believed the misinformation to be true. This time HSAM individuals did worse than normal people. They were 73 percent more prone to false memories. “Maybe HSAM individuals form richer memories through absorption of more information and that is why they are also more susceptible to false ones too,” says Patihis.

Perhaps it is easy to manipulate recent memories. So in the third test Patihis looked to test long-term memory. All participants were asked to recall the September 11 terrorist attacks. They were then given irrelevant facts about that event, one of which was not true (someone captured the footage of United 93 in Pennsylvania). After 15 minutes, all participants were then asked whether they had see such a footage. Like the first test, normal people and HSAM individuals performed almost equally badly on this test.

“This shows that maybe people with superior memories form them just like normal people. Thus, in the process, they are also prone to making the same mistakes,” says Patihis. Equally, they may use a different process of forming superior memories, but one that has same problems as that of the normal process.

There is still contention among experts whether HSAM individuals are “special”. K Anders Ericsson of Florida State University says, "our work has pretty much concluded that differences in memory don’t seem to be the result of innate differences, but more the kinds of skills that are developed." To which McGaugh says, “you’d have to assume that every day they rehearse it ... The probability of these explanations dwindles as you look at the evidence."

Price had admitted that remembering everything meant bad memories were always around to trouble her. It led researchers to believe that such superior memory may come at a cognitive cost of lost abilities, or less happier lives. But research since has shown that not to be the case. HSAM individuals tend to have similar lives to normal people. With the latest study, McGaugh has shown one more task where HSAM individuals are normal. They too may be made to believe that as a kid they were lost in a shopping mall, even if that isn’t true.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Some people have no need for post-it notes. Photo: Bala Sivakumar/Flickr
Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.