You have lots of memories — many inaccessible

Contributing WriterFebruary 1, 2014 

You have a hard drive in your head.

Much of what you have learned in life is recorded there, even if you can no longer access most of it.

However, a handful of strangely gifted people are just like us in their ability to record knowledge, but we can’t dredge up and recover most of what we once learned or experienced in our lives. They can.

Not only can the gifted few record much of what they experience in life, but in a matter of seconds they can bring forth what they learned years ago from back in that part of the brain that is, in effect, a human hard drive.

We have an ordinary ability to retrieve unforgettable, dramatic events from our own heads — our own human hard drives. But the special few can easily obtain all kinds of information from almost all the days of their lives, whether exciting or boring.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” recently reported on that amazing process. (The report is available online). The memory champs can literally tell you what they had for breakfast and practically anything else that happened to them on any date recently or long ago.

Ordinary minds can’t remember what we had for breakfast for more than three or four days.

(Actually, I can tell you what I had for breakfast any day years ago. I have eaten a banana for breakfast almost every morning of my life.)

Scientists who have been studying the few people who can remember the minor details of their lives have a hunch that may one day help the rest of us. Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” reporter, interviewed a scientist, Dr. James McGaugh, on the differences between the memory whizzes and us.

“Do they have in their brains retrieval mechanisms for memory that we don’t have?” McGaugh asked himself. “that would suggest the possibility that we (ordinary people) have all those memories. We’re just like them, but we don’t have the hooks to get the memories out.”

On the other hand, sometimes we ordinary people do have the hooks, although in more meager ways. For instance, my wife and I were watching a quiz show the other evening. A question asked what large barrier is prominent in England.

The correct response popped into both our heads simultaneously — “Hadrian’s Wall” though neither one of us knew where that knowledge came from.

Most likely, we had heard that somewhere back in grade school, but we have no memory of ever having known that. However, under the fun and pressure of a game show, we engaged our hard drive and brought those words to the front of our brains.

Similarly, we have both experienced learning some Italian and then neglecting that study for a year or so. Then, the first day back in Italy, we can’t remember hardly any words. But the hard drive spins and in a day or two, some of those words are back. Within two weeks, they are almost all back

This column must not end without telling you about a coincidence years ago when I was working for Idaho Sen. Frank Church. I was inside the Capitol when I saw a stunning blonde beckoning to me.

I looked behind me to see who she was trying to summon.

There was no one there. So she was actually beckoning to me.

I walked over to her. She told me she was a CBS television reporter. She wanted information on the senator. She said her name was Lesley Stahl.

And there she was again the other night, 39 years later. I’ll never forget meeting her.

I doubt she remembers meeting me. That would be too far back on her bright and lovely hard drive.

Contact columnist Bill Hall at or 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501.

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