Ramblings & ephemera

A woman who never forgets anything

From Samiha Shafy’s “An Infinite Loop in the Brain” (Der Spiegel: 21 November 2008):

Price can rattle off, without hesitation, what she saw and heard on almost any given date. She remembers many early childhood experiences and most of the days between the ages of 9 and 15. After that, there are virtually no gaps in her memory. “Starting on Feb. 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday.”

“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”

She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

The scientists were able to verify her autobiographical data because she has meticulously kept a diary since the age of 10. She has filled more than 50,000 pages with tiny writing, documenting every occurrence, no matter how insignificant. Writing things down helps Price organize the thoughts and images shimmering in her head.

In fact, she feels a strong need to document her life. This includes hoarding every possible memento from childhood, including dolls, stuffed animals, cassette tapes, books, a drawer from dresser she had when she was five. “I have to be able to touch my memories,” Price explains.

[James McGaugh, founder of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine,] and his colleagues concluded that Price’s episodic memory, her recollection of personal experiences and the emotions associated with them, is virtually perfect. A case like this has never been described in the history of memory research, according to McGaugh. He explains that Price differs substantially from other people with special powers of recall, such as autistic savants, because she uses no strategies to help her remember and even does a surprisingly poor job on some memory tests.

It’s difficult for her to memorize poems or series of numbers — which helps explain why she never stood out in school. Her semantic memory, the ability to remember facts not directly related to everyday life, is only average.

Two years ago, the scientists published their first conclusions in a professional journal without revealing the identity of their subject. Since then, more than 200 people have contacted McGaugh, all claiming to have an equally perfect episodic memory. Most of them were exposed as fakes. Three did appear to have similarly astonishing abilities. “Their personalities are very different. The others are not as anxious as Jill. But they achieve comparable results in the tests,” McGaugh reports.

The subjects do have certain compulsive traits in common, says McGaugh, especially compulsive hoarding. The three others are left-handed, and Price also showed a tendency toward left-handedness in tests.

In neurobiological terms, a memory is a stored pattern of links between nerve cells in the brain. It is created when synapses in a network of neurons are activated for a short time. The more often the memory is recalled afterwards, the more likely it is that permanent links develop between the nerve cells — and the pattern will be stored as a long-term memory. In theory there are so many possible links that an almost unlimited number of memories can be permanently stored.

So why don’t all people have the same powers of recollection as Jill Price? “If we could remember everything equally well, the brain would be hopelessly overburdened and would operate more slowly,” says McGaugh. He says forgetting is a necessary condition of having a viable memory — except in the case of Price and the other three memory superstars.

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