Jill Price released her memoir, “The Woman Who Can’t Forget,” this week, which discusses her condition of hyperthymestic syndrome, an ability that allows her to have an exceptional memory. UC Irvine neuroscientists James McGaugh and Larry Cahill are currently studying Price so that they may better understand the full capacities of her memory.
Coined by McGaugh and Cahill, “hyperthymesia” is a Greek term meaning “remembering more than normal.” Traits of this condition include spending vast amounts of time dwelling on one’s past as well as an exceptional ability to remember specific events.
Price — or as McGaugh and Cahill more commonly refer to her by her subject name, “AJ” — contacted the two researchers in the hope that they could make sense of her superior memory, which she explained had been a “burden” to her since the age of 10. Regardless of whether she wanted to or not, AJ found that she was unable to forget both good and bad memories.
James Haley, a fourth-year international studies major, was empathetic toward Price’s situation.
“If I was in her position, I would be overwhelmed since my mind would be too cluttered with memories. I like remembering significant things in my life, but not every single detail. There could be some benefits [to a superior memory], but overall, some things are honestly just not worth remembering,” Haley said.
Jeffrey Su, a second-year economics and social ecology double-major, similarly felt a sense of sympathy for Price.
“I think that [having this disorder] is negative because no matter how hard she tries, she can never suppress the traumatic moments of her life,” Su said.
In McGaugh and Cahill’s 2006 research paper entitled, “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering,” McGaugh explained how they were skeptical of AJ’s situation since it was the first official occurrence of this disorder to surface. Other more frequent cases of memory disorders dealt with mnemonic traits, where people maintained the ability to memorize limitless amounts of insignificant information, such as a random string of words or digits.
It was not until AJ was observed and tested on her memory that this skepticism subsided.
“We gave her many standardized psychological tests that assess various mental capabilities. She was asked to remember meaningful and meaningless information, visual data and things she did or did not say. She performed quite well. In some cases, she was perfect,” McGaugh said.
AJ was constantly tested on different dates and was expected to recall such things as what day it was, who she was with, what she was doing, what she ate and significant world events that occurred. There were rare occasions where she was unable to recall events of a certain date.
AJ’s statements were then verified not only by her mother, but also public records that chronicled world events and diaries that she kept from age 10 to 34. AJ described her diaries as a haven for her thoughts. If she did not write down what occurred throughout the day, the thoughts would wander endlessly in her mind.
AJ explains the phenomenon by comparing her memory to a movie playing. Once a date is summoned in her mind, she can vividly see a portion of that day in her mind and successfully explain the events that occurred. Her memory retrieval takes little effort and her answers to questions concerning that date are consistently rapid and automatic.
Some of McGaugh and Cahill’s colleagues viewed this phenomenon with skepticism, much as McGaugh and Cahill had done before. They claimed that AJ could have been rehearsing these answers to appear to have a superior memory. However, McGaugh and Cahill argued that they never told her the dates in advance and usually named random dates on the spot, which made it impossible for AJ to know what to expect beforehand.
In addition to AJ, McGaugh and Cahill are currently studying two other subjects with the same traits. So far, they have learned that their commonalities include the ability to correctly give the day of the week for any date given, what they did on that day and the public events that occurred on that day. Moreover, two of the three subjects are left-handed while all three are massive collectors of different objects. The significance of these commonalities has yet to be found.
In order to compensate for the scarce resources on superior memory prior to meeting AJ, these researchers are planning to compare their subjects’ brain structures to that of normal humans by using brain images via magnetic resonance imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging. These processes reveal the activity of certain regions of the brain during specific tasks.
“This may very well … provide us with essentially brand new insight into how brains store memories. If we find in these people brain structures, genetic makeup or patterns of activation that are wildly different from healthy controls and that maybe are not what we would’ve thought of. As a matter of fact, I think that’s what’s going to happen. We are going to uncover things about the brain that are really going to make us go back to the drawing board. That’s the real potential and that’s what I’m so excited about,” Cahill said.
McGaugh and Cahill encourage those who have any of the traits described to contact Nancy Collett at firstname.lastname@example.org in order to coordinate a meeting to potentially take part in their study.