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.
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.”