Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things. ~Pierce Harris

Hello, this is Ron White, memory-training expert, memory keynote speaker, and two-time USA Memory Champion. I’ve been seeing commercials about a new upcoming television series, starring Poppy Montgomery as a police agent with total recall of her life’s memories. It got me to wanting to learn more about this fascinating memory ability.

Five of the six people in the world known to have super autobiographical memory

We are the compilation of all our memories. Most of us aren’t able to recall much of our past; some of us have a hard time remembering what we ate for lunch yesterday. Amazingly there is a rare group of people who are able to remember every minute of every day of their lives, down to the minute details that occurred on a certain day in their distant past.

The medical condition is called by several different names – Hyperthymesia, Piking, Hyperthymestic Syndrome, or more commonly Superior Autobiographical Memory (SAM). The published results of the first person found to have this super memory ability was in 2008. It is known to exist in only a handful of cases in the world; at the moment only six cases are known to exist. Actress Marilu Henner, known for her role as Elaine Nardo in the late 1970s and early 1980s television sitcom Taxi, is one of them.

Henner, along with five other people with this condition, demonstrated their incredible memories on the December 18, 2010 episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes. They called it the ‘Gathering of people with super memories.’ Journalist Leslie Stahl and other  neurobiologist and experts, asked questions of the subjects about certain days that consisted of events, weather and particular things they were doing on a particular day. There was no trickery. “I don’t do it, I just see it,” says Henner.  “99% – 100% of the time, when I go to check the answer, I find they are correct,” says neuroscientist Dr. Larry Cahill.

Dr. James McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California Irvine, and a renowned expert on memory, performed standard memory tests on Henner. After seven hours he and his colleague, Cahill, officially named Henner the sixth member of the Superior Autobiographical Memory Club.

In the study of memory, says McGaugh, “It could be a new chapter that has never been explored before. It could be very important.”  Stahl asked Cahill if this group is anything like savants. “I guess the answer is yes and no. They’re not people who have an extraordinary ability, but can’t tie their shoe. And that’s part of what, I think, makes this at least so interesting for me, is that you have this really remarkable ability in a person who is otherwise pretty darn normal,” he replied.

Hyperthymesia is also different than photographic or eidetic memory, where the subject is able to study an image for a short time and then recall it in almost perfect detail. In SAM they recall details from experiences in their life, for the rest of their life. “This could recast our whole understanding of how human memory works. Could understanding these remarkable people help us to understand people with Alzheimer’s or other diseases?” asks Stahl.

MRI scans were conducted on the five SAM individuals appearing on the CBS show. Scientists didn’t find any abnormalities, but they did find that parts of the brain, including the temporal lobe, and the caudate nucleus were significantly larger when compared to that of others in their same age and gender brains. Most incredible was the extremely significant enlargement of the caudate nucleus, which lies deep inside the brain and is instrumental in skill learning and habits, including obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD). Experts are still unclear as to whether the increased size is due to memory exercise or if the subjects are born that way.

Other tests, such as DNA and handedness were conducted. Interestingly, all three of the men in the study are left-handed.  All subjects exhibit some form of OCD behavior – like Henner’s need for organization and order, but were not extreme.

For some reason it doesn’t clutter up their brain. “It’s organized, and you can pull it back when you need it,” says Henner. Overall each member of the club is glad they have this condition, it allows them to look at life as to what they can do to make each day memorable.

Sometime in late autumn of 2011 Henner will be publishing her ninth book, An Unforgettable Life… Yours! that will offer instruction on how anyone may be able to access their own autobiographical memories.



Meaningful Quotes about Memories:

Celebrities and Their Diseases – Marilu Henner and her Amazing Memory:

Post It Science – Superior Autobiographical Memory and Memory Bumps by Karen Merzenich: