British student Aurelian claims to be able to remember everything that’s ever happened to him. He can remember what he watched on TV on April 15 1997, as well as what he had for breakfast on October 27 2004, etc. With the inability to forget things that happen to him, Aurelian’s life is the complete opposite of Guy Pearce’s in Memento. His condition qualifies as the sort of freakish concept that Hollywood producers build $150 million sci-fi blockbusters around. The Boy Who Can’t Forget explores the lives of people living with superior autobiographic memory.
The idea of having a superior autobiographic memory is fascinating. You wouldn’t need to bother keeping a diary, and you’d never forget your mum’s birthday. It’s perfectly understandable that people would shell out for an automemory app if it was available to download directly to your brain from Apple’s iMemory store.
Not me, though. I’m so neurotic and self-loathing that I actively try to forget everything that’s ever happened to me. If I had automemory I’d end up replaying every social faux pas, every argument and every heartbreak over and over again in my head, verbatim.
Worst. Superpower. Ever.
During the programme we meet Bob, who appears to have reverse-amnesia. He catalogues his life in his biblically-sounding ‘Book of B.O.B.’. So detailed are his memories, Bob can remember the exact moment he took his morning shit on June 29 1973. Presumably his brain is in a habitual state of expansion as it clogs up with wads of unnecessary information. Any day now his head will explode like an overcooked potato in a cheap 1000-watt microwave.
The Boy Who Can’t Forget teases an insight into the human tragedy of über memory retention. American school administrator Jill is plagued by her memories and obsessively catalogues them in a diary “so I don’t go crazy”. Memory-sceptic psychologist Gary Marcus speculates that people with the condition don’t actually remember everything – they simply don’t forget the certain things that they do remember. He believes Jill is just “obsessively thinking” about her past, considering her superior autobiographic memory to be nothing more than an extreme form of OCD.
Aurelian raises some interesting philosophical ideas about memory. He considers photographs to be “concrete memories”, and that capturing them on camera is the closest someone can get to turning a memory into a tangible object. I’d wager that most photographs are staged or forced, and can in turn create false memories. Mind you, it’s the closest mere mortals like me can get to remembering days gone by. We don’t all have built-in memory clarification systems like Aurelian.
The show’s final message is potentially groundbreaking. Aurelian undergoes a brain scan, which reveals that his memory activates completely different areas of his brain to those unexploited by your average Joe. It’s a tantalising conclusion to the show, and Professor Giuliana Mazzoni ponders whether it would ever be possible for people to train their brains to improve their memories.
She clearly hasn’t played Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS.