The Rememberers

0

Most people remember the day they lost their virginity. But what kind of person also recalls that day’s headlines? Or what they had for breakfast that morning? UC Irvine researchers have found nine otherwise normal individuals who remember all the days of their lives. But how is that possible?

Last December, nearly 18 million Americans tuned in an episode of CBS’ “60 Minutes” in which UC Irvine’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience hosted a first-ever gathering of one of the most elite groups on the planet. At first glance, the five participants seemed to have little in common: a reporter from a small AM radio station in Wisconsin, a Cleveland man who frequently wins prizes in trivia contests, a New York-based violinist, a TV producer-writer, and actress Marilu Henner, who starred in the sitcom “Taxi” 30 years ago.

But the disparate bunch all shared one startling characteristic.

While most of us mortals have trouble remembering what we had for lunch, everyone in the rarified fraternity seemed able to recall what had happened on every single day of their lives during the past several decades. Not only that, they apparently could retrieve arcane bits of information from their brains at Google speed, almost effortlessly.

So that “60 Minutes” viewers would be suitably amazed, UC Irvine neuroscientists James McGaugh and Larry Cahill—who have uncovered what they believe is a rare, previously undocumented type of supermemory—and their assistants put the subjects through some simple tests of their abilities. They were instantly able to recall the dates of earthquakes, plane crashes, and other news events, along with what they were doing at those moments. They can recall in reverse, as well. At one point, “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl tries to stump Henner by asking her what she was doing Oct. 26, 1976. “I went to shoot a ring-around-the-collar commercial in Venice, Italy,” she instantly responds. “And you saw a second-and-a-half mood shot of Venice and then a gondolier singing, ‘Of love I sing, tra-la-la-la, for you got ring around the coll-la-la.’ And I went, ‘My powder didn’t work.’ ”

The show then segued to the footage of the Wisk laundry detergent ad shot on that date, with every detail exactly as Henner had described it.

At a time when universities must compete aggressively for superstar faculty recruits, government grants, and donors’ largesse, scoring a segment on one of TV’s top-rated programs was a major publicity coup for UC Irvine. But for McGaugh and Cahill, the attention also benefited their work in a more direct way.

To delve further into the mystery of —its explanation, process, and purpose remain a mystery—they need to find and study more individuals with these remarkable abilities. Since the phenomenon appears to be exceedingly rare—so far, they’ve found nine such individuals—locating that handful of savants on a planet of 6.9 billion is daunting. Media coverage is one of the most powerful investigative tools available, which is why, in an odd reversal of the usual pattern in academia, these two highly respected old-school scientists have spent many hours talking to journalists about their discovery, even though they’ve published only one scientific journal article about it during the past decade. They’ve also waded into the chaos of the Internet, interacting directly with the public and sifting through countless emails in search of leads.

“I don’t really care about the attention being devoted to it, except that it generates potential subjects,” says McGaugh. “The value is that by getting publicity, we get subjects.”

It could be that this is not just a story of two scientists trying to solve a neurobiological puzzle, but also one of how the process and nature of scientific discovery have been altered by the wired, media-drenched, sensation-seeking world in which we now live. Or it could be, as Cahill says, “that this project is like no other.”

.

 

 

 

 

In some ways, the two scientists are a study in opposites. McGaugh is a snowy-haired, distinguished-looking grandfatherly figure in his late 70s who has been on the UC Irvine faculty since the university opened in 1964. He speaks in the calm, measured locution of a professor from central casting. Cahill, who is several decades younger and earned his doctorate at the school McGaugh helped launch—the two co-authored their first paper together when Cahill was a graduate student—is rumpled and energetic. He isn’t above using the word “cool” (as in “We have some really cool anatomical findings”), and occasionally pulls a plastic model of the human brain off a shelf to make a point.

But both were the equivalent of Hollywood A-listers in neuroscience long before their current research came along. McGaugh, who has published more than 500 papers in his career, has made groundbreaking discoveries about memory consolidation, the process by which we process and retain memories for retrieval. The Orange County Register once proclaimed him “the man who has forgotten more about remembering than most of us will ever know.”

Cahill’s groundbreaking work in provocative areas, including differences between male and female brains, has made him a sought-after guest expert on CNN and PBS. The two first made headlines in 1994, when they published a study in Nature showing that people tend to remember emotionally moving events best because stress hormones such as adrenaline are activated during and after the experiences.

It’s particularly ironic that they’re getting even more attention for a discovery that, as they put it, was not their day job, but a project they essentially worked on in their rare moments of downtime.

It all began in June 2000, when McGaugh opened an email from a Los Angeles woman named Jill Price, who had come across his university Web page. “I just hope somehow you can help me,” she wrote, explaining that at age 11, she suddenly developed extraordinary memory abilities, and could recall what had happened on any given date from 1974 to the present. Other people, after trying to stump her and failing, told her she had a gift, but she saw it as a burden. “I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!” she wrote.

Intrigued, McGaugh invited Price to drive down to his Irvine lab. A little more than two weeks later, McGaugh sat down with Price, equipped with a copy of a 1,560-page volume titled “20th Century Day by Day.” He picked a date, Nov. 5, 1979, and asked her what had happened on that day. Price responded that she didn’t know, but that the day before, Nov. 4, Iranian students had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. McGaugh shook his head, and told her that had happened Nov. 5. But Price was so adamant that McGaugh checked another source—and discovered, to his surprise, that the first reference book had been wrong, and that Price was right. He tested her on the dates of numerous other events, from Elvis Presley’s death to Bill Clinton’s reelection, and she nailed them again and again.

During the next five years, McGaugh and Cahill probed deeper into Price’s memory, subjecting her to batteries of tests. They confirmed that her abilities were not only startling, but unlike anything they had ever seen or read about in scientific literature. She could recall not only the dates of historic events, but her own personal experiences on random days—that her ninth-grade school Easter vacation ended April 6, 1980; that she’d baked cookies April 15, 1990, and broken up with a boyfriend the next day; and that April 12, 1998, her home had “smelled like ham.” Price brought with her stacks of journals into which she had scribbled the details of her days in tiny, almost unreadable script. Those diaries made it possible to verify the information.

.

 

 

 

 

Other cases of people with extraordinary memories have been documented, from French detective Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), who maintained an exhaustive archive of criminal cases in his head, to Kim Peek (1951-2009), a Wisconsin man born with a congenital brain abnormality who could recall the contents of 7,600 books and every ZIP and area code in the United States, and served as the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film “Rain Man.” In 1937, a Russian, identified only as S. in scientific literature, memorized a stanza of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” in the original Italian—a language he did not understand—and was able to recite it perfectly when called upon to do so 15 years later. Virtually all of these people used some sort of process to commit treasured facts to memory. S., for example, had a system in which he thought of Russian words that sounded similar to the Italian ones, and used their meanings to conjure up mental images.

But Price—and the others with similar abilities later identified by McGaugh and Cahill—use no such tricks. Instead, they simply remember things in detail, and tap into those recollections with little or no apparent effort. Price has likened her memory to a DVD that runs nonstop on half of a split screen inside her head, retrieving and playing back events in response to cues from the present.

McGaugh maintains that his subjects’ recollections aren’t quite that photographic—they don’t remember every trivial bit of sensory data from every second of their lives, only personal observations and reported events that had significance. “They’ll say, ‘I remember that I drove my car there,’ but they can’t recall the color of every single car they saw on the freeway along the route,” he explains. “It’s the big picture, not micro-micro detail. This happened, I went here, I had lunch with so-and-so. They don’t remember the specks on the floor.”

It’s not just the amount of data that McGaugh and Cahill’s subjects maintain, but their ability to sift through it that makes them so intriguing. As McGaugh notes, they’re not like the protagonist of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Funes the Memorious,” who miraculously gains the ability to remember everything he sees and hears, only to discover that the tsunami of trivial detail makes it impossible to think. Instead, McGaugh explains, they somehow retain all this information “in a systematic and organized way. You say, ‘Nov. 12, 1993,’ and they respond, ‘It was a Friday. It rained that day.’ They can search through their memories and find that information. How the heck they do it, we don’t know.”

But one of the most puzzling—and alluring—qualities that Price and the other savants share is that they are relatively normal, functional people, with only minor quirks, such as the compulsion to collect and organize things, including videotapes and shoes. The “60 Minutes” segment noted that many of the study subjects are single and that Henner has been married three times, raising questions about whether this type of memory is compatible with long-term relationships. After all, who among us wants to argue with someone who never forgets? Otherwise, the UC Irvine subjects seem no different than anyone else.

“Usually the person who can draw the map of Rome after flying over it is someone who can’t tie his or her shoes, and is institutionalized,” Cahill explains. “You’d imagine that if all the capacity of the human brain went to remembering dates, you’d be pretty good at it. But you wouldn’t be able to do anything else. But here are people who were doing savantlike things, and they are relatively normal. They have a Rain Man-like ability, but without the costs.”

.

 

 

 

 

Since McGaugh and Cahill had limited funding to research Price, they added their work with her to other research, and the project stretched over several years. Finally, in 2006, they collaborated with colleague Elizabeth Parker, publishing their findings in the scientific journal Neurocase. The article, “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering,” described Price’s memory abilities and gave them a lofty-sounding scientific name, “hyperthymestic syndrome,” that McGaugh since has discarded. (“We just call it ‘superior autobiographical memory’ now,” he explains. “The other sounds like a disease.”)

At that point, they figured superior autobiographical memory was a one-and-done deal, a scientific curiosity and little more. “I really thought that we would do a paper on A.J. [the pseudonym for Price used in the article], and find out a few more interesting things about her, and then it probably wouldn’t go that far after that,” says Cahill. Studies that have major impact, he notes, invariably involve multiple subjects; even the famous amnesiac patient H.M., who became a paradigm-shifting figure in neuroscience, was one of 10 subjects cited in a study. The UC Irvine scientists simply didn’t have sufficient bodies.

But what they had stumbled on was something perhaps more potent: A subject that endlessly fascinated the public and news reporters like no other. “It was kind of a surprise when ‘Inside Edition’ called,” Cahill recalls. “But I knew something big was going on when [Price] told me that the story about us on the ABC News website had 700,000 hits in a day. I said, ‘Holy cow.’ ”

McGaugh was surprised, too, by the frenzy that the paper caused, but he since has developed a theory about that: “We mortals know that we don’t remember very well. Then along comes somebody—and now, several people—who can remember all the days of their lives. It resonates with people, especially when we’re concerned about memory diseases such as Alzheimer’s. And then these people come along who are on the other side of it. They have such strong memories, and do it without any assistance.”

As news of the woman with the astonishing memory ricocheted across the Internet, the UC Irvine scientists soon began receiving calls and emails. A California man told them that his brother, Wisconsin radio reporter Brad Williams, had similar abilities. (Williams once astonished a local newspaper reporter by rattling off the dates of the Beatles’ appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not stand for re-election in 1968.)

The calls and emails resumed when Price went public in 2008 with a memoir, which the publisher gave a particularly grandiose title: “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science.” NPR, NBC News, ABC’s “20/20” and other media organizations clamored for interviews with Price, and newspapers as far away as India ran stories about her. Amid all that, a third person with Price-like abilities surfaced—Rick Baron, an Ohio man who, according to a 2008 profile in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, had won more than 2,000 trivia contests. He contacted UC Irvine at the urging of his sister.

.

 

 

 

 

What started as a minor curiosity soon turned into a burgeoning moonlighting job for the researchers. They began using student volunteers to sift through the emails from promising prospects, and McGaugh’s longtime assistant, Nan Collett, became adept at fielding their phone calls and administering basic memory tests to self-described savants.

Cahill likens the search to “American Idol,” joking that most applicants don’t come close to making the grade. Unlike acerbic former host Simon Cowell, “we let them down as politely as possible. ‘Your performance is good, but … .’ It’s hard for people to understand how off-the-scale our subjects are. You or I might get one or two dates right in a quiz. They get 43 out of 50.”

But Cahill says he’s also intrigued by some of the almost-good-enough candidates, people whom he suspects may possess different, less-extreme “colors” of superior autobiographical memory. “There are people who maybe present in a different way,” he says. “We just don’t know yet. So we file them away for future reference.”

The researchers also have sifted through countless messages from fellow scientists and laymen alike, proposing explanations for their subjects’ mysterious abilities. “Some of them are kind of condescending, like, ‘Why don’t you get it?’ ” says Cahill with a laugh. His favorite is “a very polite guy who said, ‘I just want to point out that this is probably the result of the jaw muscles, because during development, the jaw muscles are what keeps the head small.’ To which you can only say, ‘Thank you very much.’ ”

They’ve also encountered at least one attempt to debunk their work—a 2009 Wired article by Gary Marcus, a New York University psychology professor and author who spent time with Price and claimed that the UC Irvine researchers’ conclusions were overblown. McGaugh, whom Marcus also interviewed, insists that he “didn’t pay too much attention” to the slam. He responds that one of Marcus’ key assertions—that Price’s habitual scribbling in journals functioned as a mnemonic device—is off the mark, because it seemed unlikely that Price, now in her mid-40s, had ever looked again at what she’d written down. “We had to blow the dust off them,” he recalls. “She’d tie them up with ribbons and just put them away. Their existence doesn’t solve the problem of how she remembers what’s in them.”

The basic charge made by skeptics, McGaugh says, “is that these people sit around memorizing their experiences. … You have to work with these subjects to see how improbable that is. One time, for example, I asked Jill Price out of the blue, ‘Do you know who Bing Crosby is?’ She immediately answered, ‘Yes, he died on a golf course in Spain. My mother was driving me to a soccer game at the time, and we heard it on the radio.’ Now why would she commit that to memory? Bing Crosby was somebody who was unimportant to her and her generation. I’m not completely dismissing the possibility that someone could do it, but I just don’t find the argument very compelling.”

What complicates things is that after a decade, McGaugh and Cahill can’t yet explain how their subjects perform such amazing memory feats. Cahill says they’ve gone down numerous roads that turned out to be dead ends, which is fairly normal for scientific research, but which makes them appear to be on shaky ground as the media continually press for a sound-bite solution, and they only can offer the latest, not-yet-vetted theory du jour. In the “60 Minutes” report, the researchers succumbed to temptation once again, and revealed that MRI scans of the subjects revealed that the caudate nucleus, a deep section of the brain that deals with memory and learning and is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, was many times larger than normal. But even as they recorded the segment, Cahill says, the sand was shifting beneath them again; recently published studies about the accuracy of MRIs have called into question key data collected by the UC Irvine team—and researchers at scores of other institutions as well.

But hope springs anew about another possible anatomical explanation that the researchers are considering. It stems, paradoxically, from the work of University of Toronto neuroscientist Brian Levine, who has been studying a mirror-image subject—whom Cahill refers to as “the anti-A.J”—who lacks autobiographical memory but is otherwise normal. Brain scans of the anti-A.J. reveal that a passageway between the frontal and temporal lobes is shrunken. That led the UC Irvine researchers to examine the same structure in their subjects. “It’s bigger, way bigger than the controls,” Cahill says. “Knocking on wood, this is the most exciting anatomical finding we’ve had so far. So if the passageway is big, it helps produce an A.J.-type person, and if it’s damaged, you get the anti-A.J.”

Cahill is looking forward to discussing the possibilities with Levine when Levine visits UC Irvine this month. If those findings hold up, they and other UC Irvine researchers may be able to write about them as early as this summer.

.

 

 

 

 

Still, one question intrigues above all others: Is superior autobiographical memory just a quirk, or something more significant? McGaugh wonders if it may be a vestige of a trait that helped some of our distant human ancestors survive before they had writing or complex language to store vital information. Possibly lending credence to that notion is a Japanese researchers’ 2007 finding that chimpanzees, our close evolutionary cousins, outperform college students when it comes to remembering numbers on a screen and recalling their sequence.

“Maybe humans had this capacity and lost it,” McGaugh says. “Maybe it just faded out because the need for it decreased once we had writing to retain information.”

Conversely, there’s another tantalizing notion. While most of us assume that Homo sapiens has been a finished product since the Stone Age, a 2010 Scientific American article reported research that indicates that we not only are continuing to evolve, but may be doing so at a faster rate than in the ancient past. It could be that McGaugh and Cahill’s handful of memory savants merely are the shock troops of another breakthrough in human brain development.

“Maybe a few genes evolved, and this is the future,” McGaugh says. “We simply have no way to predict this.”

 

 

 

The Calendar Kid
While a person with superior autobiographical memory has yet to surface locally, in 2009 The Orange County Register reported that , a 6-year-old from Midway City, had an unusual memory ability.

The child can identify the day of the week for any date in the A.D. calendar with what the Register described as “virtually 100 percent accuracy.” Though not as unusual as superior autobiographical memory, calendar calculators, as they are called, are rare—only about 50 such people in the world have been identified.

As with auto­biographical savants, scientists have not been able to determine the explanation for this ability. A study of a Chinese calendar savant, published in 1991, concluded that he did not rely on high-speed calculation, rote memorization, or any other suspected techniques.

 

 

 

 

The Day Marilu Overshared
We’re surprised the UC Irvine memory researchers didn’t start studying TV actress Marilu Henner sooner, because she’s been treating us to attention-getting autobiographical recollections for years now.

When she was interviewed on “Later” in May 1989, above, host Bob Costas asked her to recall where she was when astronauts first landed on the moon in 1969.

“Who told you this?” Henner replied, blushing.

After Costas insisted that he had picked the event at random, she obliged. “I was in Chicago. … I was in high school. It was July 20. It was a Sunday night. Did someone tell you this?”

“No, I promise they didn’t,” Costas replied, urging her to continue.

“That was the night I lost my virginity,” Henner blurted, giggling.

“Well, one thing we know for sure,” Costas responded. “Neil Armstrong wasn’t the culprit.”

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

Facebook Comments