Hyperthymesia: Total Recall, Totally Overwhelming
Due to a condition called hyperthymesia, Jill Price can recall practically every day of her life in vivid detail. New scans of Price's brain may finally reveal the source of her extraordinary memory.
At the core of popular movies like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Memento” are characters who are respectively desperate to forget or struggling to remember. The memories we keep and those we lose are central to our perception of ourselves. No one understands that better than Jill Price, a 42-year-old school administrator from Los Angeles, who has perfect recall of nearly every day of her life. As Price explained to Diane Sawyer during a “20/20” interview, “I am in the moment, but it’s like I have a split-screen in my head.”
In 2000, Price contacted James McGaugh, a researcher at the University of California Irvine, who, along with Larry Cahill and Elizabeth Parker, began to study her remarkable memory by testing her recall of certain events. McGaugh explains, “The significant public events are a matter of record; we fact checked them. We were able to check her personal experiences against a diary she kept from the age of 10 to 34.” Although Price’s memory for personal events is extraordinarily detailed, she isn’t particularly skilled at rote memorization. In 2006, the three researchers published a study about Price (whom they refer to as AJ) in the journal Neurocase, available in PDF format.
The researchers called her condition “hyperthymestic syndrome,” or “hyperthymesia,” which essentially means superior autobiographical memory: “thymesia” means memory in Greek.
Over the years, researchers have entertained many theories about the source of Price's incredible memory. Some studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with executive function and decision making, is active when subjects are trying to suppress information. Not surprisingly, Price performed poorly on tests of these functions. A New Scientist article reviewing the Neurocase study speculates that “[Price] may be better at storing memories than most while also being worse at blocking their retrieval.”
The blog Yes, ICantSeeYou reports on a University of California Irvine lecture in which Larry Cahill held a human brain before an audience, pointed to the hippocampus and said, “The memory must go through there in order to stick.” However, hyperthymesia case studies failed to find anything special in the hippocampus of those subjects. Cahill explains, “My hope is that a sign may well point somewhere else entirely.”
And Cahill may indeed have located that sign. According to a January 2009 article in USA Today, MRI scans of Price's brain showed “two abnormally large areas”: the caudate nuclei and a portion of the temporal lobe. Cahill explains the caudate nuclei processes “automatic habits,” while the temporal lobe collects and retains facts. This breakthrough may signal that when these brain areas work in concert, they create a type of event recall that’s as automatic as remembering how to brush your teeth. According to Cahill, “[W]hat we're looking at is a new chapter in the book on memories and the brain."
Price was the first person to call attention to the condition. The research team are currently studying other hyperthymestic subjects: Brad Williams, a Wisconsin radio host; Rick Baron of Cleveland and a California man who works in the entertainment industry. All three of the men are left-handed, and Price, Williams and Baron are packrats. Up to 50 other individuals may be hyperthymestic.
Brad Williams joined the study after he read about Price in Neurocase. His brother is producing a documentary on his condition called “Unforgettable.”
“Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings competed with Brad Williams in a trivia quiz and reports that Williams “wiped the floor with me.” Jennings believes his memory and Williams’ are different creatures, and wonders what having Williams' condition would be like: “Would you be more or less alert to the world around you? Would you be more inclined to learn from past mistakes and avoid repeating them? As near as I can tell, Brad is completely unmarked by his remarkable gift.”