Monday, September 22, 2008

Can forgetful people now relax?

Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 10:36 UK

Can forgetful people now relax?

Scan of the human brain

By Susan Blackmore
Presenter, Remember Remember

Names, phone numbers, directions - it can be a struggle to remember. Digital technology could soon make forgetfulness a thing of the past, but do we really want that?

It's a lively party. You see someone you know, you rush up to say hello and you can't remember their name. It's a common social faux pas, but help could soon be at hand.

Just as glasses and hearing aids are now commonplace, scientists are working on day-to-day digital devices to help us remember, with some taking inspiration from ancient times.

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"The nomenclator was in Roman times the person who went round telling the senator who they were meeting," says Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at Southampton University.

"We think that quite soon we'll be able to develop a technology, like some combination of hearing aid and glasses, that will actually enable you to remember.

"We really think within the next five to 10 years you'll be able to be helped by memory aids."

Most of us already outsource our memories to electronic devices. Our mobiles remember phone numbers for us, and satnavs and GPS systems do the same for directions.


Engineer Lyndsay Williams decided to try and take things further when she started to regularly find a forgetful family member's missing mobile phone in the washing machine.

The Sensecam takes pictures every 30 seconds

At the time she was working for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, where she developed the SenseCam - a small digital camera to be worn around the neck. It takes pictures every 30 seconds, or when it detects a change in light or heat. At the end of the day you can review all the pictures - perhaps 2,000 shots - in a few minutes.

While reviewing the photos taken after a short walk around a science park in Cambridge, I remembered everything I'd thought about during the stroll - thoughts I might have forgotten if I'd never checked back.

Microsoft isn't planning to market the SenseCam, but researchers say it can provide real help for people who suffer from Alzheimer's or severe memory loss.

For many their most precious memories are of their children growing up, but one couple is taking this to extremes.

Speech scientist Deb Roy, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his wife are recording all the speech uttered in their home during the first three years of their son's life. High-quality microphones and video cameras are installed in the ceiling of every room.

"We have a total of somewhere in the order of 200,000 hours of audio and video," Professor Roy says.

The aim is study exactly what a child hears as he learns to speak. Along the way this "ultimate home video system" has provided some interesting surprises.

He recently looked up some video of his son's first steps, an occasion he thinks he can vividly recall.

"It was in the morning, it was in the hallway, I was with my wife and it was a special moment."

But when he looked at the video he found it had actually happened in the evening. What's more, his wife was away and he had shouted out to his mother instead.

"That memory error didn't impress my wife nor my mother," he says.

Total recall

The lure of all these burgeoning memory aids is that they might free up our minds to do other things, or help us relax because we know we have our precious memories stored.

Would you be stuck if it broke?

But is being able to remember more always a good thing? Professor Jim McGaugh, of the University of California at Irvine, has his doubts.

He has studied three rare people with what he calls "hyperthymestic syndrome" - an uncanny ability to remember what happened on every day of their adult life. Among them is Jill Price.

"If I ask her what happened on 12 May, 1993, she'll say first of all the day of the week and then she'll say something of what she did that day. If there was a significant public event - a plane crash, a train crash, a war - she'd be able to give the details."

But none of these people has benefited greatly from their ability. Indeed, rather the reverse in Ms Price's case.

"If she thinks of the date today, then she'll think of the date last year and the year before and the year before," he says. "Then she'll come across a day in which something terrible happened and that's very disturbing to her."

Like some of these digital devices, Jill's amazing memory means she is deficient in an underrated human skill - forgetting.

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