One of my favorite movies is “Being John Malkovich”, the 1999 film that could be described as insanely brilliant and brilliantly insane. It was a hilarious concept: a puppeteer finds a hidden doorway that is actually a portal leading directly into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. Upon entering this portal, one would have fifteen minutes inside Malkovich’s head, experiencing his reality for a brief time before being unceremoniously dumped onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. (The puppeteer is fascinated by the metaphysical implications of this discovery while also seeing this as a lucrative business opportunity, charging his clients $200 per visit inside the portal—and that’s when things start getting even more bizarre!) I think this film resonated with many, for haven’t we all wondered what it would be like to be inside someone else’s skin or inside another’s mind? This movie definitely prompted a large number of friends to say to me, “Watching that made me want to see the movie and read the book called ‘Being Louise Owen’. I want to know what it’s like to be inside your unusual mind.”
Why would so many say that about me specifically? As it turns out, I possess an extremely rare ability called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). When given any random date from the past 30+ years, I can quickly recall what happened in my own life as well as the day of the week, the weather, and possibly what happened in the news on that date. The emotional immediacy of these memories can be as intense as if the events occurred thirty minutes ago rather than three decades ago. I am the fifth person in the world to be officially identified as having this kind of extraordinary memory, as documented by a team of neuroscientists at UC Irvine who’ve been conducting this exciting new chapter in the field of memory research.
I’d always had an unusually sharp memory for events and music since I was little, and my ability to recall recent history started to become highly chronologically organized as I hit double-digits. By the time I was 11, I could look at a calendar from that year and easily know what had happened in my life on any given day. I’d often close my eyes and point to a random date, and it was fun to find myself immediately transported back to the events and emotions of that day, as though I were actually time-traveling. At first I didn’t know this was the least bit unusual, but I soon learned otherwise.
In trying to help others understand more clearly what it’s like to have HSAM, I’ll often say, “Here’s a date: September 11th, 2001. Do you know what happened that day, in the world and/or in your own life?” Most people have an immediate response, easily recalling it as one of the darkest days in U.S. history with the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that fateful morning. I’ve never spoken to an adult in this country who doesn’t have a clear memory of that day, not only of the cataclysmic events that occurred but also for what they themselves experienced as that terrible day unfolded. For those of us New Yorkers who were here when the Twin Towers fell, the emotions and devastating images of that day are especially vivid.
Now take that type of immediate emotional and factual recall, apply it to every single day of the calendar for the past 32 years, and THAT is how specifically my memory works. Are you exhausted yet? Welcome to my world.
People always ask me, “Is it a blessing or a curse to have this kind of memory?” I definitely try to focus on the positive aspects of it, for it is often enormous fun being able to time-travel through my life and share these stories. As a musician who has performed all over the world in many unusual contexts and has come into contact with truly fascinating characters who’ve made my life so much richer and more interesting over the years, I’m grateful I can instantly conjure up three decades of amazing experiences. Yet there are times when I am nearly incapacitated by the overwhelming floods of memory, both the good days and the bad ones. It has gotten a little easier as I’ve grown older and gained more perspective, and I’ve developed better coping strategies over the years. But the intensity of both the joys and the pains can be so acute, there are certainly times I don’t handle it very well.
However, it’s impossible for me to truly answer that “blessing-or-curse” quandary outside the context of my faith as a Christian, for it all keeps coming back to God’s matchless grace. I could write an entire book trying to answer that question, but for the purpose of this blog-post, here are a few of the implications this highly unusual ability has had on my spiritual life.
1) Remembering Reveals Grace
I know this rare memory is not something I consciously developed, but rather, it is an enormous God-given GIFT. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t do anything to warrant it; this massive memory capacity was simply given to me, the ability in place long before I had any notion how incredibly unusual it was. When the team of UC Irvine neuroscientists began studying my brain in 2009—and when these leading memory researchers were staggered by how I could effortlessly recall what had happened on any date over a 3-decade period—it was unbelievably humbling to me to realize how atypical this kind of autobiographical recall is, yet it’s the way my mind has always worked since I was a kid. I usually feel I’m merely the caretaker of this extraordinary gift, something that was entrusted to me to use wisely in this lifetime and hopefully encourage others with it.
In the same way I did absolutely nothing to earn this extraordinary ability, God poured out the gift of His grace and mercy through His precious Son because it pleased Him to do so. I did nothing to deserve God’s favor, and I could never do anything to work for it or achieve it on my own record. Nothing could be more humbling and emboldening at the same time. I am unspeakably grateful for these gifts, and I want to live my life in joyful response to being given so much, even though I’ve done nothing to deserve it.
2) Remembering Builds Perspective
Since I have a most unusual sense of chronology because of this memory capacity, I think this gives me a unique vantage point on how things are connected in this world. I’ve often thought of Time in a vertical fashion, a continuum that keeps looping back and stacking on top of itself rather than moving in a mere chronological straight line. All the January 31sts are connected to each other, all the April 22nds are indelibly linked, etc., and I find myself noticing patterns repeating themselves in very specific ways.
Some might sense these synchronicity patterns on a deep subconscious level but wouldn’t be able to articulate them with much chronological accuracy, but I see clear glimpses of these uncanny similarities happening around me all the time. I don’t think these are mere coincidences, for I believe God is intimately involved in every detail of our lives, creating beautiful order out of the swirling chaos. However, if I have an unusually firm grasp of time and history in my own life in comparison to those around me, how much more of a window does that give me onto those things my heart constantly forgets but that my heavenly Father will never lose sight of? It makes me marvel at His design and perspective of time, especially given He has that with the future as well as the past.
God’s sense of time is so different from ours, for what seems an eternity to us in mere mortal chronological terms is but a millisecond to God in His grand scheme of things. The ancient cultures understood time differently than we do in our current age, and the Greeks had two words for time: “kairos” and “chronos”, both of which are used in Scripture. It’s the concept of God’s time vs. linear time, as humans understand it here on this earth. In her book Walking On Water, Madeleine L’Engle writes about kairos as…
“real time, God’s time. That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.”
Because of my ability to emotionally time-travel, I often feel suspended in between those two notions of kairos and chronos, giving me a sense of incredible expansiveness. I am my 43-year-old self here in 2017 while simultaneously feeling that I am also an emotional 14-year-old, a hopeful 29-year-old, and a searching 35-year-old. I have a firm grasp of all the events that played out on this particular day on any given year, and I am those ages all at once. Throughout all these years, I clearly see God’s hand in everything, working deeply in the lives of those around me as well as shaping every one of my own days, leading me into uncharted territory and answering prayers in ways that I never would have imagined.
3) Remembering and Prayer
And speaking of prayer, I wouldn’t be functioning very well if I couldn’t pour out my heart to God in prayer. When most people ask me the blessing-or-curse question about having HSAM, they usually want to know how I deal with the difficult memories. I absolutely could not get through painful-memory days if I couldn’t cry out to my Creator, begging Him to lift the burden of the relentless memory stream, for it’s far too much for me to bear by myself. But isn’t that the same story for everyone whether or not they have an intergalactic memory or not?? The pains and trials of this life are too much for any of us to handle on our own—and the joys can also be so great, we don’t want to experience them alone either. Having this ability drives me into a deeper prayer life with the One who remembers every single detail far better than I do and truly knows every corner of my mind and heart.
Since I possess this unrelenting memory, I feel even more of a responsibility to focus my heart on those things that are true and worthy of praise, and in turn to share that love and joy with others. If I’m not living my life with a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, the unceasing stream of memory will eat me alive. I know I’m going to remember each day so I try to live in such a way that it’s worth remembering, even though I frequently fall short. But I know that there is matchless grace underneath it all, and I can cry and rage at God, asking Him to lift the burden when it’s too much for me to handle on my own.
I am profoundly thankful for that, for I truly believe anything that drives our hearts deeper into prayer can be a good thing if it ultimately draws us closer to Him. He has placed eternity in all of our hearts, and for whatever reason, I’ve also been entrusted with this extraordinary ability while I am here on this earth. It gives me courage to pray retroactively, feeling both inside and outside of linear time, knowing that God’s complex timeline is so much more nuanced and perfect than anything I could ever fathom with my finite mind.
Louise Owen © 2017
(Here is a link to Louise’s website, The Kitchen Fiddler)