Out in the Open

Why a near-perfect memory can be both a blessing and a curse

Markie Pasternack has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), meaning she has a nearly perfect memory for things that have happened to her and things she happens to have heard about. She tells Piya how her exceptional memory has bolstered her relationships, but also made it impossible to forget the more difficult experiences she's lived through.

Markie Pasternak has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) and remembers almost every day of her life

Markie Pasternak's highly superior autobiographical memory means she can remember nearly every day of her life since she was about 11-years-old. (Facebook)
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Markie Pasternak remembers what she did, where she went and even what she was wearing virtually every day of her life — as far back as early 2005. 

The Alabama woman is one of roughly 100 people worldwide confirmed as having a condition known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).

According to University of California Irvine professor James McGaugh, people who have the condition "have a superior ability to recall specific details of autobiographical events, tend to spend a large amount of time thinking about their past and have a detailed understanding of the calendar and its patterns."

For Pasternak, who was 11 when this ability seemed to have first kicked in, those memories are still with her today. 

"In May 2006, I started to realize that I knew what I did every day for the past year. And if I didn't know right off the top of my head what I did, I could figure it out," the 25-year-old told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I never know what's going to stick out first," she added. "Some days I might think of the outfit I was wearing first. Other days I might think of a person I talked to or a place I was first. But once I cling onto one of those details I can kind of dig deeper and find the others."

Watch Markie Pasternak take a rapid fire history quiz:

The perils of perfect recall 

HSAM was first discovered by McGaugh after a woman named Jill Price approached him in 2000 about what she called a "memory problem." But it was a problem he'd never heard of before. 

"She claimed she remembered too much," McGaugh told Out in the Open. "She claimed she could remember every day of her life."

Price would become known for the suffering she claimed her exceptional memory caused — due to her inability to forget the bad parts of her life, particularly the death of her husband. 

In December of 2010, Price and McGaugh appeared on an episode of 60 Minutes, after which McGaugh says he heard from hundreds of people claiming to have a memory like Price's. 

About 60 of them turned out to have HSAM. More have emerged since then. 

"It turns out that there are a lot of people who are just like our original subject," said McGaugh, "but unlike her, they don't complain about horrible memories. A lot of them are very happy and have a lot of pleasant memories."

Pasternak has both. 

Her father died unexpectedly when she was 19 years old. Living with HSAM means remembering that day as though it was yesterday. And whenever Pasternak sees the date Feb. 5, her memory immediately flashes back to the day she was hit by a drunk driver during graduate school. 

Difficult memories are just part of the problem, though. "The hardest part about having HSAM is that other people forget," Pasternak explained. "An event or a person stays in your memory forever, but you have the ability to fade away in [theirs]." 

It's something that adds to my ability to see life in a different way.- Markie Pasternak

Remembering to stay positive

Despite the challenges, Pasternak says she has no interest in trading her exceptional memory for an ordinary one. 

"It's served me in a lot of ways," she reflected. "We remember what we pay attention to and we pay attention to what we care about, so remembering can show people that we care. ... If I'm your friend you can at least count on hearing from one person on your birthday."

Pasternak's memory has also taught her a valuable lesson on forgiveness. 

"I remember things that have happened to me since fifth grade. I'm going to remember disputes or fights in so much detail that I can really relive it if I want to… and sometimes even if I don't want to!" 

The result? 

"Forgiving isn't something you do once. It's something that you do every day." 

Pasternak believes her HSAM is tied to the fact that she has obsessive compulsive disorder, something that's come up in McGaugh's research. And while she values the treatment she's received for OCD, she says she has no desire to rid herself of the memory that appears to go with it. 

"It's something that adds to my ability to see life in a different way."


This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "The Special Edition".

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