Becky Sharrock, featured on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes who has a condition that means she can remember every detail of her life going back to when she was a baby. Photo / Supplied
Becky Sharrock’s unique ability can be particularly frustrating for her mum.
The 26-year-old will sometimes come home and ask her mum a question. Perhaps something very innocuous, such as if she likes a movie that’s going to be on TV tonight.
But often Becky will be puzzled at her mum’s reply. “But that’s not what you said last time I asked,” she might say.
“Last time?” her mum will respond. “When was the last time?”
“When I asked five years ago,” Becky replies.
Winning an argument is hard with Becky, the only known person in Australia
to be diagnosed with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). Or to put it more simply, Becky can remember, in crystal clear detail, practically every second of her life.
“It was a shock and it still is,” says Becky whose story is featured on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes on Sunday. “It’s mind boggling for me.”Every conversation she’s had, every meal she has eaten, every book she has read, Becky can recall it as if it happened just a moment ago.
Becky, and those who share her ability which is also known as hyperthymesia, could provide answers to a range of brain maladies. But far from being a boon, that Becky can remember every second of her life has been a struggle with painful memories of difficult times past as real as if they were happening right now.
60 Minutes’ reporter Allison Langdon (right) tests Becky Sharrock on her ability to recite Harry Potter novels without reading the page. Photo / Supplied
LIKE A DVD
60 Minutes reporter Allison Langdon, who accompanied Becky to the US where she met with doctors who have treated other patients with HSAM, told news
.com.au it was one of the world’s rarest conditions.
“It’s quite phenomenal how it works. The brain is like a DVD with different chapters and they can see it and picture it and jump forwards or backwards.
“She always felt everyone remembers things like she can but they could deal with it. She doesn’t understand how we forget things.”
Becky is the only Australian to be diagnosed with the condition and the only person worldwide to live with both it and autism.
While HSAM appears in most cases between the ages of 10 and 14, Becky remembers right back to the year she was born.
One of her earliest memories is from when she was in her cot. She distinctly recalls being terrified by a Minnie Mouse doll. It chimes with her mum’s recollection that she would always push the soft toy away.
Becky’s skills were evident to Ms Langdon from the get go. But to test them, the Channel 9 reporter set the diehard Harry Potter fan a tough challenge.
“I tested her on the (Harry Potter) books because she says she can remember every single word from every single book,” she says.
“So I would pick up a book and open a page and read her a line and immediately she would name the book, chapter number, chapter name and could recite every word until I told her to stop.
Becky (right) is now learning to manage her condition. Photo / Supplied
‘IT’S A BURDEN’
But there can be downsides for those with HSAM as difficult memories are always near the surface.
“Becky’s really struggled because she’s very literal and say she’s walking down the street and someone bumps her shoulder, that will trigger a memory from when she was seven and a kid walked past, bumped her and knocked her over. She’s right back there living it all,” says Ms Langdon.
“One of our great abilities as a human is that we can forget, get rid of the stuff that’s not important. However, they can remember insignificant events just as clearly.
“That’s why a lot of people with the condition say it’s a burden,” she says.
Another person with HSAM wakes up every day recalling the day her mother died as if it happened that morning. But Becky is getting help to deal with the onslaught of memories and has been given tools to stop her dwelling on negative thoughts.
“She is now dealing with it much better,” says Ms Langdon. “Just knowing that what she has, has a name and that she’s not alone has made a huge difference.
Her autism has also been downgraded from severe to moderate as medical professionals reassess her condition and if the HSAM symptoms were wrongly blamed as another sign of being autistic.
SECRETS OF THE BRAIN
But that’s not the only medical breakthrough. Doctors think Becky, and others with the condition, may unlock some of the secrets of the brain that could eventually help millions.
HSAM is “the other end of the spectrum” says Ms Langdon from people suffering from debilitating brain diseases.
“People like Becky may hopefully help in a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
However, if you think remembering everything you’ve ever seen could set you up for life, think again.
“Often (people with HSAM) don’t do really well at school because it’s information overload,” says Ms Langdon.
“Trying to sort it all and work out what you need to remember is really difficult.
“You would think you would blitz your tests, but it doesn’t make you a genius.”