What Effect Would TOTALLY Perfect Memory Have?

Bill Skaggs bill at nsma.arizona.edu
Thu Sep 5 21:19:47 EST 1996


emc at madrox (Eric Manshun Choi) writes:

   I am in the process of writing a science fiction story in which one of
   the characters has the ability to literally remember EVERYTHING that he
   sees or reads.  For example, if he was walking down the street, he would
   remember how many cracks there were in the sidewalk, the number of cars
   that passed him, the make and color of each car, the license plates on
   the cars, how many people were in each car and what they looked like, etc.

   How would such an ability affect his mind?  Would he be able to cope, or
   would the overload of information drive him insane?

Curiously enough, it might not even make much of a difference.  The
sheer capacity of memory is less important than the ability to search
it in an efficient way.  Suppose, for example, that I'm watching a TV
show, and in the background, irrelevant to the action, a billboard
appears saying "XQAB means YOU DIE!".  A year later, in the mail I
receive a postcard saying "XQAB!".  Even if the contents of the TV
show are stored in my memory in perfect detail, the memory won't help
me unless the postcard somehow succeeds in reactivating the memory.
This is an easy point to overlook, because the human episodic memory
system is very good at content-based retrieval, but it is crucial to
the question you are asking.  In fact, some psychologists have
suggested that human memory actually does store every experience in
perfect detail, and that the only thing lacking for recollection of
any particular item is an adquate cue.  (Very few neuropsychologists
believe this anymore, though.) 

For computers, there is a general tradeoff: it's relatively easy to
store huge amounts of information, but the more information you store,
the more difficult it is to find the relevant parts.  The same
tradeoff probably applies to human memory.  The Russian neurologist
Alexander Luria wrote a fascinating book called "The Mind of a
Mnemonist", about a man named Sherashevsky whose memory was
tremendously enhanced above most people's.  Interestingly, it didn't
help him very much as a thinker, and may even have harmed him, because
his ability to remember events in great detail often prevented him
from noticing the abstract, high-lvel relationships that would be the
only things most people would remember.  He made his living as a
nightclub entertainer, memorizing long lists to amuse an audience.

	-- Bill



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