BY: AYA TSINTZIRAS
In 2000, a woman named Jill Price sent the following note to a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine: “I am 34 years old and since I was 11, I have had this unbelievable ability to recall my past.” She can remember things that have happened to her from almost every single day of her life. Mention a date to her and she will remember it in incredible detail. Feeling haunted by this ability, she wondered if the neuroscientist, James McGaugh, could help. The result: five years of tests and interviews, and a case study published in the journal Neurocase in 2006, referring to Price as “AJ.”
Brown has a neurological connection called Hyperthymesia (after the Greek “hyper” for excessive and “thymesia” for remembering) that is more commonly referred to as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM. There are only 56 people known to have this ability, which involves not only recalling past events but also visualizing the memory. It seems that memories dating back from the age of 10 can be recalled. It appears to cause more harm than good, as being consumed with the past interferes with enjoying the present moment.
The cause of this condition remains a mystery. The most recent study from 2012 found that the brain regions of those with HSAM involving episodic memory were different than those with normal memories. Specifically, nine structures of their brains were different: the white matter that linked the middle and front of the brain was stronger. There were also differences in the areas associated with autobiographical memory.
Interestingly, those with HSAM only have an uncanny memory when it comes to their own lives – their memory of external events is not nearly as impressive. Price, in fact, struggled in school while growing up.
As with anything that causes a lot of hype – Price was interviewed on TV by Diane Sawyer and her memoir, The Woman Who Can’t Forget, was published in 2008 – there is an accompanying controversy. Psychologist Gary Marcus wrote a profile on Price for Wired and concluded that she might have OCD tendencies instead, based on the fact that she obsessively writes down the events of her life in journals, and this recording is the reason for her memory.
OCD is most likely a factor since individuals with HSAM fixate on dates, but the most disturbing aspect of life with this rare ability is the pain of uninterrupted nostalgia. In 2013, a 22-year-old named Alexandra Wolff told NPR that she feels like she misses out on her life and spend hours in her bedroom with her eyes closed, remembering the past.
Photos By Brian Duffy