Hyperthymesia – A Newly Discovered Memory In Which People Remember Every Day Of Their Lives (video)

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Abnormalities in Jill Price's brain are likely responsible for her ability to remember every day of her life, particularly after age 13.

What did you do on this day ten years ago? What day of the week was it? What was the weather like? Were you on time to work? Did you call your mom, watch a football game, or eat spaghetti for dinner?

I can’t remember either. But for a very few, very special people, they can answer these questions for that day and for any other day of their lives beyond a certain young age. This new type of superior memory – termed hyperthymesia – has only recently been discovered and not much is known about it at all. But since the first case was documented in 2006 others with this ‘condition’ have come forward for researchers to study. Eventually, what they learn from these individuals will add to our understanding of the still mysterious workings of memory and to human cognition in general.

It was back in 2000 when Jill Price first reached out to neuroscientist James McGaugh and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine. Not for the good of science or to satisfy her own curiosity, her entreaty was an act of desperation. Her letter begins, “As I sit here trying to figure out where to begin explaining why I am writing you and your colleague I just hope somehow you can help me.”

It might not be obvious why total recall of one’s life might require “help.” But for Price, remembering how she spent the past 20 Easters isn’t a miraculous skill or even an amusing party trick – it’s a prison.

“My memory has ruled my life…. I think about the past all the time…. It’s like a running movie that never stops. It’s like a split screen. I’ll be talking to someone and seeing something else … Like we’re sitting here talking and I’m talking to you and in my head I’m thinking about something that happened to me in December 1982, December 17, 1982, it was a Friday, I started to work at Gs (a store).”

With much interest, and a healthy amount of skepticism, McGaugh agreed to meet with Price. After one conversation he was convinced that whatever was going on with his new subject was real and new. Other types of superior memory had been studied before, but in those cases subjects were tested on their ability to remember a list of facts or strings of numbers. Price was the first to have superior autobiographical memory. In the 2006 paper they coined the term hyperthymesia, derived from the Greek word “thymesis” which means “remembering.”

How good is she at remembering?

April 3, 1980? – “I see it. Spring break. Passover, I went to that week. I was on Spring Break. I see the week.”
July 1, 1986? – “I see it all, that day, that month, that summer. Tuesday. Went with (friend’s name) to (restaurant name).
October 3, 1987? – “That was a Saturday. Hung out at the apartment all weekend, wearing a sling – hurt my elbow.”
April 27, 1994? – “That was Wednesday. I was down in Florida…to come down and say goodbye to my Grandmother who they all thought was dying but she ended up living. My Dad and my Mom went to New York for a wedding. This was also the weekend Nixon died.”

The words Price chooses to describe the days is instructive as to why she can remember the details of years past while you and I can’t. When asked to recall what she was doing on such and such a day – as her bemused friends often do – she “sees” the day. For some reason her relationship to the calendar is visceral. It’s something she “just knows.” What that means exactly and how it fits into her superior memory is a mystery. To parse that relationship apart will be difficult to say the least. But therein may lay a major key. “There’s something about attention to and knowledge about the calendar that accounts for part of this,” McGaugh told New Scientist.

In addition to her knowledge of the calendar, another part is the constant recall that Price calls “non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.” But don’t think of it as if she were “studying” all the time and thus can remember better – the voluminous details of every day of her life are simply too many for that kind of approach. For her the recall is effortless and automatic. In the following video, “20/20’s” Diane Sawyer tests Price’s recall ability, with predictable results.

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Because this type of superior memory had never been studied before the research team had to devise new kinds of tests. “So unique is her presentation that we decided to let the subject herself guide this inquiry,” they write in the report.

In the past, quantifying a person’s powers of recall is typically limited to just that, without incorporating tests to assess their broader psychological makeup. But McGaugh considered the possibility that Price’s ability might affect other parts of her nature. In addition to tests for autobiographical memory, some additional tests included her ability to remember by rote, an IQ test, and tests for language skills, organizational skills, and executive functioning or the ability to use past experience to plan future actions. As expected, Price performed exceedingly well on the tests for autobiographical memory. In fact, she got a perfect score. Her ability to memorize numbers, for example, was not so good. Out of the 52 numbers she’d been given she could only recall 7. She performed similarly when trying to memorize words. On these tests she’d actually scored below average.

One test result in particular caught the researchers’ attention: Price scored poorly on the executive function test. This was interesting because impaired executive function is also seen in people with developmental disorders that cause the frontal cortex – the part of the brain thought to carry out executive function – to grow abnormally. Autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome and schizophrenia are all associated with an abnormal frontal cortex.

One facet to proper executive function is the ability to inhibit memories. We won’t be able to make plans if our thoughts are being constantly bombarded by irrelevant memories. Price, it would seem, cannot shut the door to the past. A cue – a puppy for example – will evoke images of the puppy she had when she was eight. And when her mind sees Tuesday, her feeding the puppy, and the puppy’s red collar, she’ll think of her father’s red necktie and the wedding on Saturday he wore it at.

And so on. She simply can’t help but be stimulated by retrieval cues.
In the time since the study Price wrote a book entitled “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” and has appeared on “20/20” and “Oprah.” She’s also returned to the lab for more tests. This time the team performed MRI scans on her brain. The scans showed two areas of Price’s brain to be abnormally large: the caudate nuclei and part of the temporal lobe. Neither one is part of the frontal cortex, but their functions do offer another theory as to why Price can’t forget. Both are involved in memory formation, but of different kinds. The caudate nucleus is important in storing automatic memories, the kinds of memories you don’t know you’re learning. An example would be learning how to ride a bicycle. You get better with practice but you don’t consciously memorize how to position your hands or time your pedaling. The part of the temporal lobe that was enlarged is important in storing facts, dates and events. The theory that Peter Cahill, a co-leader in the study and a member of the 2006 team, has put forth is that the two areas might be working together so that Price’s daily memories that would normally need to be memorized are being stored automatically. It’s a highly speculative idea as the two brain regions have never been observed to work together in such a way. But, as Brian Levine, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto told USA Today: “The larger areas in Price’s brain almost certainly explain her rare gift.”

Price isn’t alone. Since the 2006 study others have contacted McGaugh and Cahill claiming to have hyperthymesia. Brad Williams of La Cross, Wisconson and Rick Baron of suburban Cleveland are confirmed hyperthymesics. As these two and more are studied we can only expect to uncover the brain workings behind this extraordinary and fascinating ability. And we may even help those not so gifted. Levine, for one, is hopeful. “This may be a key piece of the puzzle as to how memory works, and that can be used in future research to help people with memory disorders.”

[image credits: USA Today and healthplexusnet (modified)]

image 1: Price
image 2: brain
video: 20/20

Discussion — 10 Responses

  • Ver Greeneyes September 29, 2011 on 9:00 am

    I wonder if that means I have hypothymesia. My memory in other areas is okay, nothing special, but my memory of my past is essentially nonexistent. I have no memory at all, not even flashes, of being a child, and at 23 I’m hardly old.

  • knowledge_treehouse September 29, 2011 on 9:27 am

    Does she store the content of her autobiographical memory as abstract concepts as well?

  • Phil G September 30, 2011 on 5:07 am

    Or, she just thinks about the past all the time. The article says \”But don’t think of it as if she were “studying” all the time and thus can remember better – the voluminous details of every day of her life are simply too many for that kind of approach.\” This is false – a person who spent four hours per day thinking about everything that occurred in the past week would have a large memory advantage for that material. There is no need to review every day every day.

    Another question is how accurate her memories are. The article didn\’t touch that.

  • kjod71 September 30, 2011 on 7:16 am
  • Mr Memory October 1, 2011 on 1:35 pm

    A good write-up, but the information on this is somewhat dated, particularly for something that has been in the news the last 9 months or so. As of June, there are 20 people confirmed with this condition including myself (verification may be obtained through UC-Irvine). Williams, Barron, and Price are joined by Marilu Henner, Louise Owen, and Bob Petrella. Henner claimed on “Today” back in January that one of her sons had the condition.

    Regarding accuracy – it requires greater than 90% accuracy to be considered hyperthymesia. It is verified by taking things that ARE verifiable as benchmarks. For example, I know for a fact that on November 7, 1991, I got off work at Sears and my wife and I went to the grocery store and bought $68 worth of groceries. (Yes, I remember the name of the grocery store, but I don’t want to be pinpointed so their science can do its thing). The obvious question, of course, is “How do you know this?” Because while she was checking out I went to get the car because it was cold. We had our only snowfall in my Southern city for 1991 at 2 am the next morning. When I got in the car I turned on the radio and heard the shocking words that Magic Johnson was retiring from the NBA due to a positive HIV test. My wife got in the car and I told her.

    Now – that includes verifiable information with unverifiable. However, when I then spell out that that was a Thursday, that I went home and watched “Arsenio” and Magic was on there – and what I did the next day (worked at Sears) and the following day (I worked at Sears from 9-5 and then Pizza Hut from 6-11 – verifiable with time cards and records) while on my break (now up to November 9, 1991) I watched the Alabama-LSU game won by the Tide, 20-17, and also tuned in the Tennessee-Notre Dame at the same time where Tennessee came back from a 31-7 deficit – well ALL of that is verifiable. You then test that out across randomly chosen dates from 30 years. Public events are one benchmark.

    Of course, let’s say I’m not into sports. ALL of us have some interests. You are gauged according to events that would show that interest (Jill Price, for example, does extremely well on public figure deaths and plane crashes). Also, some information can be verified by friends (let’s say I went to a Bon Jovi concert in town X on date Y – that is easily verifiable. If I then say before it I saw X on TV and afterward heard Y happened….ALL of that is verifiable.

    While it is certainly conceivable a person could study up, you have no way to know on the test, which is why most people do so poorly on it. Cahill said that he gets a 0 on the public events test AND HE WROTE IT!! So he chooses hard questions (I can recall about 27 of the 30 questions on the initial test, more if I think more than a few minutes on it).

    For example – without a Google – what happened April 29, 1992? And once you get that, can you then tell me what day terrorists blew up the London stock exchange? What day the 2000 NBA playoffs ended?

    I thought everyone could do this until “60 Minutes” featured it. I contacted McGaugh’s office the next day and was verified in March.

    • Mr Memory Mr Memory October 1, 2011 on 1:37 pm

      Also, if you go backwards two days I can tell you the results of our state elections on 11/5/91, at least the major ones. Hardly memorized concepts – just known days.

  • wdavis8759 May 21, 2012 on 12:54 pm

    I believe I know a person with hyperthymesia. If researchers are interested, how can I contact somebody? Please reply.