If you could remember every day of your life from age 8, would you? This St. Louis 12-year-old can.
Imagine you could remember every day of your life in exquisite detail. Would you love it or loathe it? That’s what Jake Hausler, a local 12-year-old with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, has been able to do ever since age 8. Now, researchers at Washington University are mapping his brain to discover what makes his memory so powerful and if there are lessons to be learned that impact people with normal memory capabilities.
On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” host Don Marsh asked Hausler if his memory capabilities are a blessing or a burden.
“It’s definitely both,” Hausler said. “For the main reason that I can remember everything, so I don’t have to worry about forgetting … dates and stuff. Then, I can remember every bad thing and, of course, that’s horrible.”
Hausler said memories, like moving and getting in trouble, can be hard to cope with but he can make those memories less intense over a period of about two months.
“It’s a blessing in that he can remember so many things,” said Sari Hausler, Jake’s mother who first realized he could remember things differently when Jake was in kindergarten. “A lot of older people with HSAM, over time, they say the good memories will outweigh the bad memories. Jake hasn’t experienced somebody dying. They said they can also go back and remember time so vividly with the person… [remembering death] is hard to live through but he will also have the flip side.”
Hausler said that, although there are downsides, his friends think his ability is pretty cool and he has had opportunities to go on television and radio, which are also exciting experiences.
Hausler’s story is part of a new NOVA documentary airing on PBS on Wednesday called “Memory Hackers,” which features the work of other scientists aiming to understand the intangible elements of our brain and memory. Henry “Roddy” Roediger, one of the scientists featured in the documentary and a professor of psychology at Washington University who is studying Hausler also joined “St. Louis on the Air” to talk about his research.
“If I were to ask you or the audience to remember everything you did yesterday, they could probably do that reasonably well,” Roediger said. “If you asked them to do the same thing for four years ago, they’d probably do less well. The remarkable thing about Jake is that he has this ability to remember days of his life like he can yesterday.”
The discovery of his abilities so early is also important, because most people who have been found to have HSAM are older. Psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of California-Irvine only discovered the ability 10 years ago. Out of the thousands of people they have tested with superb memory, they’ve only found about 55 people with HSAM. “It’s extraordinarily rare,” Roediger said.
Why can he only remember exact days after age eight? Roediger says that is tied up in the same question about why we can’t remember our memories of being a baby.
“When people are asked for their earliest memories, they are usually between 3 or 4,” Roediger said. “There are many reasons why that may be. Some people believe our memories are verbally encoded. Until language becomes quite proficient in us, like when we’re three or four, we may have those memories but we can’t gain verbal access to them to report them.”
A lot of people don’t realize they have HSAM until they are older and share specific memories of specific days with their friends when those friends can hardly remember anything. “If you grow up with it, you’d think that was just the way it was,” Roediger said.
HSAM is not to be confused with other kinds of memory capabilities people have, like “photographic” memory. For example, Nelson Dellis, who took first place in the U.S. Memory Championships in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, though he can remember decks of cards and long lists of number and words, can’t do what Hausler does.
Hausler’s memory is tied very much to dates. If you ask him to tell you what happened on July 26, 2013, that would be easier than asking him to remember all the digits of Pi.
You know this kid is a St. Louisan because the date he was most easily able to recall on air was October 28, 2011. That was a Friday night and Busch Stadium was packed to gills. That night, the Cardinals beat the Rangers 6-2 to win the World Series.
What: PBS Presents NOVA's “Memory Hackers”
When: Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 8:00 p.m. and Friday, Feb. 12 at 2:00 a.m.
Where: Nine Network’s Channel 9.1
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.