Real-Life Total Recall

The silver stirring pot of memories, known as a “Pensieve” to fans of Harry Potter, contains Professor Dumbledore’s overflow memories. When his brain becomes too full, he physically pulls out a memory and swirls it into the Pensieve for safekeeping. While the concept is one of fantasy and imagination, a seemingly endless capacity for memory may not be so implausible.

A 40-year-old woman, “AJ” — also known as “the human calendar” — is being studied for her seemingly limitless memory. For the past five years, University of California, Irvine researchers Elizabeth Parker, an APS Fellow, Larry Cahill, and James L. McGaugh, an APS Past President, have studied AJ extensively. They consider her one of a kind, as she is able to recall accurately and in full detail what she was doing on any specific date between 1974 and today.

Researchers have coined AJ’s condition “hyperthymestic syndrome.” Simply put, she remembers far more than most people are able to. According to the researchers’ findings, “AJ has led us into new, unexpected terrain as we explored what we believe to be the first case of a person with this form of superior autobiographical memory.”

Since IQ testing was not found to correlate with superior memory, and no objective tests are available to measure it, the researchers’ methodology relied on AJ’s personal reports, interviews, and video recordings.

“AJ kept a diary from the age of 10 to the age of 34, a subset of her personal recollections was verified with her diary entries,” the researchers write.

It’s not entirely a good thing to have a limitless memory. AJ’s detailed memories are sometimes a burden, with one memory cuing another and another, forcing AJ to relive her moments in her life like a “movie in her mind that never stops.”

While AJ’s condition may not have a magical solution, she is providing researchers an opportunity for extended research on superior — rather than deficient — memory. Deficient memory problems, like amnesia, have been widely studied by psychologists. Cases of superior memory are much rarer, and those individuals that have been studied use memory tricks, like mnemonics to remember vast quantities of information. AJ does not have to use such devices. Her recall is effortless.

Another intriguing aspect of AJ’s case is that she shows impairment in other neuropsychological tasks, like some executive function and reasoning tasks. According to Parker, AJ’s combination of superior skills and deficits “shows a highly variable pattern, which is unusual.”

In the next six months, the researchers hope to use MRI and other scanning techniques to learn more about the physical basis for AJ’s peculiar mental abilities. They also hope to find another person with a memory like AJ, but for now her mind continues to be an intriguing singularity.


Observer Vol.19, No.5 May, 2006

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