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Ever Wish You Had Total Recall? Ask People Who Do…

Recall of every detail of one’s past works out better for some people than for others

Marilu Henner who played Elaine Nardo in the sitcom Taxi (1978–1983), has total recall:

She can recall, off the top of her head, the exact day she got the part.

“It was June 4 of 1978. It was a Sunday and I found out at the ‘Grease’ premiere party,” Henner said. “‘Taxi’ is so vivid to my mind. The very first rehearsal was July the 5 th of 1978. That was a Wednesday and our first show was shot the 14 th, a Friday.” The actress, who has also starred in “L.A. Story” (1991) and “Man on the Moon” (1999), is one of only 12 people in the world diagnosed with hyperthymesia, also known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.

David Wright and Brandon Baur , “Actress Marilu Henner’s Rare Super-Memory Recalls Every Day of Her Life” at ABC News (April 24, 2012)

In a 60 Minutes Australia program (September 21, 2018), Henner demonstrates the ability and explains what it feels like:

Henner also wrote a book, Total Memory Makeover (2012), on managing memories to one;s advantage. She has written a number of other health and relationships books as well.

From BrainWorld:

Henner knows the month, day, and year of every event that has happened in her lifetime, from major news events to minor personal incidents, like the fact that she broke her wrist in a revolving door on Sunday, May 6, 1973. If you tell her your birth date, she’ll tell you the day of the week you were born. “It’s just something I’ve been able to do my whole life. It’s just there,” says Henner, who became aware of her ability at age 6. “It’s like a DVD menu or a hard drive — everything is there.”

Gerri Miller, “Total Recall: Marilu Henner Can’t Forget (Even If She Wanted To)” at BrainWorld (Summer 2011 Brainworld Magazine, online June 15, 2019)

And the neuroscience behind that?

MRI tests indicate that the temporal lobes and caudate nuclei in these subjects’ brains “are significantly larger than those of people who do not have this ability,” says McGaugh, but the cause remains unknown. “Is the region larger because they were born with it and it plays some role in their memory, or is it because they’ve exercised their memory causing this region of the brain to grow larger? We don’t have an answer to that question. We don’t know whether the subjects were born with this or it’s an ability that was acquired later on,” he says, noting that they are in collaboration with other scientists doing genetic analyses on saliva samples.

Gerri Miller, “Total Recall: Marilu Henner Can’t Forget (Even If She Wanted To)” at BrainWorld (Summer 2011 Brainworld Magazine, online June 15, 2019)

Henner made a good thing out of her skills, which seem to go well beyond total recall. But some total recallers have not found living with their skill so easy. The 60 Minutes Australia program also features Jill Price, born 1965 in New York City, who describes a much less dynamic and encouraging life (4:20 min). From a Guardian story about Price in 2017:

Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people…

It is, she says, like living with a split screen: on the left side is the present, on the right is a constantly rolling reel of memories, each one sparked by the appearance of present-day stimuli. With so many memories always at the ready, Price says, it can be maddening: virtually anything she sees or hears can be a potential trigger.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “Total recall: the people who never forget” at The Guardian (February 8, 2017)

As she described it,

“Whenever I see a date flash on the television (or anywhere else for that matter), I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on and on and on. It is non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting … 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!!!”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “Total recall: the people who never forget” at The Guardian (February 8, 2017)

Not much research has been done on this remarkable topic but University of California neurobiologist James McGaugh, whose specialty is memory, reported on Price’s ability in 2006:

This report describes AJ, a woman whose remembering dominates her life. Her memory is “nonstop, uncontrollable, and automatic.” AJ spends an excessive amount of time recalling her personal past with considerable accuracy and reliability. If given a date, she can tell you what she was doing and what day of the week it fell on. She differs from other cases of superior memory who use practiced mnemonics to remember vast amounts of personally irrelevant information. We propose the name hyperthymestic syndrome, from the Greek word thymesis meaning remembering, and that AJ is the first reported case.

Parker ES, Cahill L, McGaugh JL. A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase. 2006 Feb;12(1):35-49. doi: 10.1080/13554790500473680. PMID: 16517514. The paper requires a fee or subscription.

Price was frustrated by the resulting publicity and did not co-operate much with further research. But one outcome was that McGaugh’s office began to receive reports of more such cases. Meanwhile, Price wrote (with Bart Davis) a book about her experiences, The Woman Who Can’t Forget (2008).

Violinist Louise Owen (see 7:52 min of the video above), was among those profiled by 60 Minutes as well:

“For me, I will often see a calendar in my head, and it’s usually a month at a time,” she said. “When I hear the date, it’s like my brain immediately goes to a position on a calendar and once I locate it, I see what happened instantly.”

When “60 Minutes” host Lesley Stahl tested Owen, she could remember within minutes important events that had happened on a particular date, like the January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion.

Rosemary Black, “Autobiographical memory: when you can remember every last detail of every day of your life” at New York Daily News (December 21, 2010)

Total recall is not without limits. It typically kicks in for events that happen after about the age of 11 or 12 so it is not a window into early consciousness. It shows best for long term memories; even for especially high scorers, total recall may not be outstanding in short term memories. Significantly, Jill Price, intensively studied, only remembered details for the times and dates of events that mattered to her personally. She was “no better than average” at general current events.

James McGaugh

For most of the very high recall people who contacted McGaugh and his colleagues, including Bob Petrella, the skill was not automatic either. They practiced it, describing “mental systems that would seemingly improve retrieval, sorting memories chronologically or categorically (as in, every 15 April as far back as they could remember). This date-based structure seemed to help them organise their memories, as though they were tagging them for easy reference.” (The Guardian)

But these memory aids (mnemonics) can’t be the “explanation” for their abilities. McGaugh’s lab tested many subjects who had excellent memories — just not in the highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM league, as the ability came to be called, with or without mnemonics.

Could study of total recall help with the fight against memory loss in Alzheimer and other diseases that sap memory? That’s hard to say because, in truth, science doesn’t presently know very much about HSAM. Perhaps it belongs, in part, to that intersection between mind and brain that we call the “Hard Problem of consciousness.” We must hope that, if true, that fact does not deter continued research.

Note: The featured photo is by Sander Sammy on Unsplash.

You may also wish to read: “What neuroscientists now know about how memories are born and die” Where, exactly are our memories? Are modern media destroying them? Could we erase them if we wanted to?

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Ever Wish You Had Total Recall? Ask People Who Do…