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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

NRA files for bankruptcy, says it will reincorporate in Texas

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks during CPAC in 2016. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The National Rifle Association said Friday it has filed for voluntary bankruptcy as part of a restructuring plan.

Driving the news: The gun rights group said it would reincorporate in Texas, calling New York, where it is currently registered, a "toxic political environment." Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, alleging the group committed fraud by diverting roughly $64 million in charitable donations over three years to support reckless spending by its executives.

24 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden: "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution

Joe Biden. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine manufacturing, as he outlined a five-point plan to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in the first months of his presidency.

Why it matters: With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warning of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, Biden is trying to establish how he’ll approach the pandemic differently than President Trump.

A new Washington

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Image

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday that the city should expect a "new normal" for security — even after President-elect Biden's inauguration.

The state of play: Inaugurations are usually a point of celebration in D.C., but over 20,000 troops are now patrolling Washington streets in an unprecedented preparation for Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20.