March 15, 2006
Researchers Find Woman With Extremely Good Memory

A woman with the best known memory of her past has been identified by UC Irvine researchers.

Researchers at UC Irvine have identified the first known case of a new memory syndrome - a woman with the ability to perfectly and instantly recall details of her past. Her case is the first of its kind to be recorded and chronicled in scientific literature and could open new avenues of research in the study of learning and memory.

Researchers Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James L. McGaugh spent more than five years studying the case of "AJ," a 40-year-old woman with incredibly strong memories of her personal past. Given a date, AJ can recall with astonishing accuracy what she was doing on that date and what day of the week it fell on. Because her case is the first one of its kind, the researchers have proposed a name for her syndrome - hyperthymestic syndrome, based on the Greek word thymesis for "remembering" and hyper, meaning "more than normal."

Their findings are published in the current issue of the journal Neurocase.

I'd like to have controllable hyperthymestic syndrome syndrome. No need to remember very boring and tedious tasks. But when listening to a lecture or reading an important article it would be handy to be able to think a thought to activate a greatly enhanced ability to form memories.

"What makes this young woman so remarkable is that she uses no mnemonic devices to help her remember things," said McGaugh, a National Academy of Sciences member and a pioneer in the field of memory research. "Her recall is instant and deeply personal, related to her own life or to other events that were of interest to her."

AJ's powers of recollection can be astonishing. In 2003, she was asked to write down all the Easter dates from 1980 onward. In 10 minutes, and with no advance warning, she wrote all 24 dates and included what she was doing on each of those days. All the dates except for one were accurate. The incorrect one was only two days off. Two years later when she was asked, again without warning, the same question, she quickly responded with all the correct dates and similar information about personal events on those dates.

There are limits to AJ's memory. While she has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and instantly can identify the date and day of the week when an important historical event in her lifetime occurred, she has difficulty with rote memorization and did not always do well in school. She scored perfectly on a formal neuropsychological test to measure her autobiographical memory, but during the testing had difficulty organizing and categorizing information. She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life's experiences as "a movie in her mind that never stops".

The Easter dates trick strikes me more as a form of a specialized savant talent. While on a high school tour of a mental institute I once met a guy making pottery who could tell you the day of the week for any day in the past. He did it instantly with no seeming delay after being asked.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 March 15 09:51 PM  Brain Memory

Robert Schwartz said at March 15, 2006 10:19 PM:

All women have that kind of memory for their husband's mistakes.

auntulna said at March 16, 2006 6:54 AM:

Your headline for this is great. You should send it to Leno and Letterman; I agree with Robert Schwartz- I am always being reminded that I must not have been listening, probably for most of my married life.

I wonder if there was much in the way of any emotional context to this woman's memories- I would bet very little- thus allowing her to store it all?

curious george said at March 16, 2006 7:42 AM:

hmm. It seems incredibly strange to me that rote memorization would be difficult for her. So really, she is somehow only able to recall her OWN life, rather than much outside stimuli. I wonder if she can remember important dates in history that didn't happen during her lifetime?

David at Cronaca said at March 17, 2006 8:00 AM:

"Controllable" is the key! Announcements such as this always puzzle me, because this woman's abilities would not seem to be unique in the literature. They are, it appears, but a variation of photographic recall, no? But perhaps the scientists doing this work don't get out enough. In my field, architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock was famed for photographic recall that he apparently could not control. According to the stories, he could recount what he had seen on a trip decades before as if it were all still right before his eyes. And he apparently avoided watching TV and, I think, films, because of the indelibility of his vision. I've often thought about how one might, Midas-like, wish for such a gift and then profoundly regret it. To have perfect recall of that sort would be so utterly alien -- as if you really weren't passing through time at all. Although I suppose if the recall were only visual, that would mitigate the effect to some extent. Nonetheless, try to imagine old memories -- every old memory -- being just as vivid as present experience . . . .

Rob said at March 21, 2006 8:03 AM:

Actually, knowing the day of the week for a given date is a pretty straightforward mathematical calculation. I figured it out one time (a simple formula that worked for dates after 1950 or so) and briefly dazzled folks with my abilities. It takes constant practice to be fast, though, so I can't do it any more. If you had a stage act or something however, this would be a butt-simple trick to learn.

For myself, I'm glad I have the ability to forget...

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