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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Most humans can rely on some aspects of memory, but some live on the extremes: those who remember everything that happens to them — or have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), and those who can’t remember events from their lives at all — and have Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM).

Why it matters: By looking at people with abnormalities in memory, neuroscientists encounter new ideas about what happens in the brain, James McGaugh, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, tells Axios.

“You can ask them about any day in their life,” McGaugh says about people with HSAM, which he discovered in 2000 when a woman named Jill Price wrote to him:

"Whenever I see a date flash on the television I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on and on and on. It is non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.”

The neurological mechanisms underlying HSAM are still being studied.

  • Those with HSAM retrieve memories more rapidly and certain brain regions are more active in them than in adults who don’t have the condition.
  • Today, the total known number of people in the world with HSAM is around 120.

The flip side: Susie McKinnon doesn’t remember any events from her life. She doesn’t remember any vacations she’s taken. She doesn’t remember herself as a kid.

  • McKinnon emailed University of Toronto neuroscientist Brian Levine in 2006 about her condition, and is the first person identified with SDAM.
  • Many people with SDAM say they can’t form images in their heads, something Levine plans to investigate further with brain scans.
  • So far thousands of people who have taken Levine’s memory survey say they have SDAM. But “many people don’t even know they have it until adulthood,” he tells Axios.

What’s next: People with memory abnormalities suggest the possibility that we all have the potential ability for conditions like HSAM in our brains, but it may be impaired “because we have a brain that’s totally functioning,” McGaugh says.

  • “What happens if part of the brain is no longer effective? Does that allow another part of the brain to expand and do these marvelous things?" McGaugh asks. "That’s the future of brain research, exploring what the potential is of the brain, not just what it’s like for ordinary people.”

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 7 mins ago - Sports

IOC: Belarus sprinter who sought refuge in Tokyo "safe"

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus in 2019. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought refuge in Tokyo, is in the care of Japanese authorities and the UN refugee agency is now involved in her case, an International Olympic Committee official told reporters Monday.

The latest: Officials in Poland and the Czech Republic have offered to help the 24-year-old sprinter, who refused national team orders to board a flight home after being taken to Tokyo's Haneda airport Sunday following her criticism of Belarusian coaches, per Reuters

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy crosses the finish line ahead of American Fred Kerley in the men's 100m final on day nine of the Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

🚨: IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

🏃🏾: Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs: Reconnecting with U.S. father "gave me the desire to win" Olympic 100m sprint race.

🥇High jumpers persuade Olympic officials to let them share gold

🏌️‍♂️: Golfer Xander Schauffele wins gold for U.S. by one shot

🤸🏿‍♀️: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee is "looking into" U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders' gesture on the Tokyo Games podium after she won a silver medal, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams told reporters Monday.

Why it matters: Saunders told AP she placed her hands above her head in an "X" formation while on the podium to stand up for "oppressed" people. The IOC has banned protests during the Tokyo Games.