NationStates Jolt Archive

Scientists awed by `human calendar'

Cosmo Kramerica
14-03-2006, 19:20
Scientists awed by `human calendar'
Stunned by woman's near-perfect ability to recall big events and the tiniest details
Mar. 14, 2006. 05:05 AM

California researchers have uncovered a woman with a memory so detailed and unusual they have quite literally never seen anything like it.

Give her a date and she can tell you what took place — whether it was the final episode of the television soap-opera Dallas, the day actor Robert Blake's wife was killed, the day of the Lockerbie plane crash, the Iranian invasion of the U.S. Embassy, the day Proposition 13 passed in California or the day a plane crashed in Chicago. She can tell you what she was doing at the time. She remembers the weather.

Her life is like a movie on an endless loop, full of emotion. She cannot escape any good or bad thing that ever happened to her.

Asked in November 2003 to list every Easter since 1980, the 40-year-old Jewish woman provided researchers with a list of 24 dates that had one single error. She included details of what she was doing on each of the days.

"April 6, 1980, 9th Grade-Easter vacation ends; April 15, 1990, make cookies, S breaks up with me next day; April 11, 1993, hang all day, spaghetti dinner with R."

Researchers at the University of California Irvine were able to verify her memories against detailed entries in diaries, which she made on an almost daily basis from the ages of 10 to 34. In some cases they were able to verify her memories with her mother.

Their findings are reported in an article in the current edition of the journal Neurocase. The woman is identified only as AJ. Her unique ability to perfectly and instantly recall details of her past has led researchers to propose a name for her condition: "hyperthymestic syndrome," based on the Greek word thymesis for "remembering," and hyper, meaning "more than normal."

UC Irvine researcher James McGaugh said nothing like it has ever been documented in scientific literature.

The woman does not use mnemonic devices to remember her life.

It seems to arise from some kind of innate ability that researchers cannot yet explain.

They hope to perform an MRI to determine whether there is something unusual about the structure of her brain.

They also hope that bringing her story to the public will encourage others with the same ability to come forward.

"If there's many people like this then we can do serious science on them and find out what causes it — you can do genetic analysis for example," said McGaugh.

"It's very hard to do with one subject. If we had lots of them, we could do a full-scale scientific inquiry."

McGaugh said he and his investigative team conducted numerous tests to ensure AJ wasn't fooling them.

McGaugh is the founding director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine and a research professor at the university, investigating the role of brain systems in regulating learning and memory. His research team included Toronto-born neuropsychologist Elizabeth Parker, and the team consulted with University of Toronto's Endel Tulving, author of Elements of Episodic Memory.

McGaugh said AJ wrote him for help six years ago.

"I've tried to trick her in every way that I could," he said. One day, without notice, he asked her to recite all the dates he'd interviewed her over five years. She did it, adding what the weather was like, and personal details, like when McGaugh went to Germany.

"She just did it effortlessly," said McGaugh. "If I was asked `when did I take that trip to Germany,' I would have been off by a year. She had the exact date."

He tested her repeatedly on obscure trivia.

"She's 40 years old, so she couldn't care much about Bing Crosby, so I said `When and where did he die?' She said: `Oh, he died on a golf course in Spain,' and gave me the date. Can you do that?"

Her memory is both a blessing and a burden, McGaugh said.

"I think about the past all the time," she told McGaugh.

"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 ... in my head I'm thinking about something that happened to me in December 1982, Dec. 17, 1982, it was a Friday, I started to work at (a store)."

Researchers have decided to protect her identity to preserve her privacy.

Despite her fabulous remembrance of things past, the woman cannot remember what the five keys on her chain are for; she is bad at recognizing faces; she did poorly at rote memorization tasks and never excelled in school — her grades were mostly Cs. She collects TV Guides, displays obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and admits to a fascination with the macabre.

She earned a bachelor's degree in social science, graduating at 23. She has almost always lived at home with her parents, even after her marriage at the age of 37.

She has suffered from depression, and takes Prozac.

She has been employed as an assistant in a law office, where her memory served her well, and as an executive assistant. She is childless. She currently has plans to start her own business.

The woman told researchers she had always had a richly detailed memory for episodes: Her earliest memory is of being in her crib at 18 to 24 months and being woken by her uncle's dog; she remembers her brother's birth when she was three.

She reports that several people on her father's side of the family have excellent memories, but none so good as hers.

She believes there was a change in her memory when at age 8 her family moved from the east coast to the west. Traumatized, she began making lists of old friends, looking at pictures of her house, and ruminating about the past. Not long afterwards, she began keeping detailed diaries.

She became obsessed with writing things down, making entries as often as six to seven times a day.

"Some people call me the human calendar while others run out of the room in complete fear," she told researchers. "Most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!"

She also told researchers she wouldn't change it if she could.

"I treasure these memories, good and bad ... it's a part of me."
14-03-2006, 19:56
Same thing with that guy who remembers everything he ever read. Deformities in the brain cause mild retardation simultaneously with the inability to forget.
14-03-2006, 20:02
Possibly related in some way to edetic memory.
Sumamba Buwhan
14-03-2006, 20:06
That's nothing. I can tell you the exact date Christmas fell on every single year I've been alive, WITHOUT using a calendar. Let the praise commence.
Cheese penguins
14-03-2006, 20:10
That's nothing. I can tell you the exact date Christmas fell on every single year I've been alive, WITHOUT using a calendar. Let the praise commence.
Smart arse... :p anyways that is quite impressive bet she has a watch like bernards and can pause time to go look in her secret diaries of what she was doing.
14-03-2006, 20:11
That's nothing. I can tell you the exact date Christmas fell on every single year I've been alive, WITHOUT using a calendar. Let the praise commence.
Wow! You're amazing! Fantastic! Wonderful! [ just trying to "build your self-esteem!" ] :D
Sumamba Buwhan
14-03-2006, 20:16
*flexes his muscular brain* :p

I wish I had a photographic memory like that lady (I bet she would make a killing on Jeapordy if she was the scholarly type). My memory is quite the opposite, I've already forgotten what I was talkign about.
14-03-2006, 20:18
That must be horrible. Imagine remembering every single bad thing that has ever happened to you in vivid detail all the time.
14-03-2006, 20:23
That must be horrible. Imagine remembering every single bad thing that has ever happened to you in vivid detail all the time.
But on the other hand, being able to remember every single detail of the wonderful things that happen....

I almost think that's worthwhile. My mind tends to linger on the negative anyway, so I already remember more of the bad things than the good.