Imagine having the ability to accurately remember every day of your life. Not hazy, general recollections, but a precise recall of events as though they occurred just yesterday. What the weather was like, the clothes you wore, people you were with, exact details of conversations — a virtual documentary film of your life.
Impossible? The twilight zone, science fiction?
No, there are a few people — perhaps less than 100 worldwide — who do have this remarkable gift (or in some cases, challenge). The condition, which was discovered less than 20 years ago, was originally called Hyperthymestic Syndrome or Hyperthymesia, from the Greek work Thymesis meaning “remembering.” Today researchers refer to it simply as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).
The first case was identified in scientific literature in 2006. That breakthrough paper titled, A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering, was written by Drs. Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James McGaugh.
It is the story of a 34-year old woman, referred to anonymously as AJ, who had memories that dominated her. AJ did not have trouble with her memory — “I have trouble forgetting,” she said. “I never forget anything.”
“My memory has ruled my life,” she told the doctors. “It’s like a running movie that never stops. It’s like a split screen. I’ll be talking to you and in my head I’m thinking about something that happened to me in 1982. December 17, 1982, it was a Friday…when I hear a date, I see it, the day, the month, the year…it’s a burden.”
AJ could remember events that ranged back 20 years to the age of 14. She described it as a constant, uncontrollable, and automatic phenomenon.
In June of 2000, the memories became so vexatious that she wrote a lengthy cry-for-help email to Dr. McGaugh, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine.
McGaugh immediately responded. Rigorous testing and crosschecking validated the veracity of AJ’s memories.
After years of working with McGaugh and other professionals, AJ came to terms with what she called “time traveling in my mind.” By 2008, she revealed her actual identity — Jill Price — and recounted her life story in a memoir, The Woman Who Can’t Forget. The book led to national television appearances, and through the years, her fame has grown.
Price said that ultimately she was grateful for her prodigious memory because “it has given me more clarity about the forces that shaped my life.”
As a result of the publicity generated by Price, other HSAM cases have come forward. There are striking similarities — these people have portions of their brains which are larger than the norm; their memories are vastly more organized than the messy, cluttered recollections most have; the material they recall is autobiographical — so their aptitude does not help them in ordinary tasks (“I couldn’t memorize and recite a poem in school any better than anyone else,” one HSAM subject said); and they tend toward the obsessive in personal habits.
The most common denominator HSAMs share: give them a date in the past, and the memories instantly pour forth. “I will often see a calendar in my head and it’s usually a month at a time,” Louise Owen, who can remember everything back to the age of 11, noted. “When I am asked about a date, it’s like my brain immediately goes to a position on the calendar and once I locate it, I see what happened instantly.”
Owen, like others with HSAM, is not particularly traumatized by her skill. “I try not to be defined by this,” she said.
Despite the times when Owen says she feels like she “speaks a language no one else speaks,” her extraordinary memory has, in the main, been an “absolute blessing…there are so many amazing things that have happened throughout my life that I’m really grateful they are there and I haven’t forgotten them.”
Actress Marilu Henner, who was aware of her superior recall even as a child, agrees with Owen. “I feel so blessed to have it,” she exclaimed. “I can remember my whole life. I can even remember my baptism. When I was five years old, people would call me ‘Little Miss Memory.’ “
In her long career, from her days as Elaine Nardo on Taxi to her recent ongoing role in the Hallmark Channel’s Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, Henner has been able to incorporate her recollections into defining characters. “I learned to embrace the memories, celebrate them, and explore them in character without hesitation.”
Even the bad memories are useful for Henner. “I happen to be able to cushion the bad memories we all have with the happy ones we have,” she said. “It’s so great having all your life experiences at your fingertips.”
Scientists are hopeful that by studying the HSAM cases, a scientific pursuit in its infancy, mysteries surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and other serious problems can be unlocked. “This information may well turn out to be useful for all kinds of disorders,” Dr. McGaugh declared. “This is promising work in a much broader context.”