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Researchers had never found a subject with a perfect memory — then along came Jill Price. Photo: Bryce DuffyIt’s a Monday afternoon in November, and I’m driving down Ventura Boulevard with Jill Price, the woman who can’t forget. Price, who is 43, has spent most of her life here in Los Angeles, and she remembers everything. In the space of two minutes, she tells me about the former motel lodge with a bear in front, the Courtyard hotel that used to be a Hilton, and a bowling alley—since replaced by a Marshalls—where a Nicolas Cage film was shot. All this comes pouring out so fast, I wonder aloud whether Price has had too much coffee. She laughs, says no, pulls slightly at her blond hair, and starts up again. Right over there, she says, is a car wash: “I was talking to the guy there last summer, and I was telling him about the first time I ever went to the car wash—on August 30, 1978. And he was freaking out.” Soon, Price, generally a gentle soul, has moved on to a rant about a TV program she just saw: “It was about an event that happened in 2002. So they kept going back to Saturday, June 19, 2002. Well, June 19, 2002, was not a Saturday! It was a Wednesday. It was pissing me off.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAbQvmf0YOQ Diane Sawyer interviews Jill Price on ABC News.I first saw Price last May in a YouTube clip of her on 20/20. Diane Sawyer asks Price, an avid television viewer, to identify certain significant dates in broadcast history. When did CBS air the “Who shot JR?” episode of Dallas? When was All in the Family‘s baby episode shown? And so on. Price nails every question. She not only gives the date for the final episode of MASH but describes the weather that day.The most remarkable moment comes when Sawyer asks Price when Princess Grace died. She immediately answers, “September 14, 1982—that was the first day I started 12th grade.” For once, it seems that the memory lady has blown it. Sawyer laughs nervously and tries gently to right her guest: “September 10, 1982.” Price misunderstands, thinking she’s being prompted to identify another event—the possibility that she’s being corrected apparently doesn’t occur to her. No, Sawyer says, she has made a mistake; according to the book that 20/20‘s producers were using as a source, Princess Grace died on September 10. Price stands her ground, and not 60 seconds later, a producer breaks in: “The book is wrong.” Price is right after all!Until recently, no one had ever heard of Jill Price. Her friends and family knew her memory was remarkable, but nobody in the scientific community did. Her road to stardom started in June 2000 (Monday, June 5, to be exact), when she stumbled upon a Web page for James McGaugh, a UC Irvine neuroscientist who specializes in learning and memory, and decided to send him an email describing her unusual ability to recall the past. McGaugh wrote back 90 minutes later. He tells me he was skeptical at first, but it didn’t take long for him to become convinced that Price was something special; he soon introduced her to two of his collaborators, Larry Cahill and Elizabeth Parker.The three researchers interviewed Price many times over the next five years, but they kept the story to themselves. Finally, McGaugh and company were ready to share what they had found. In February 2006, their article, “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering,” appeared in the journal Neurocase. Shortly thereafter, the UC Irvine press office peddled the story to The Orange County Register—and Price’s world was turned upside down.The newspaper article, which identified her only as “AJ,” appeared on March 13, 2006. Within hours, UC Irvine was besieged with inquiries. Four weeks later, the story went national: Price was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition (still under the AJ pseudonym). An editor at Free Press eventually tracked her down, and a book deal followed; Price would tell her own story, this time under her own name. The media played along, withholding further news on the woman who couldn’t forget until the book’s release.Since then, Price has been on a nonstop media junket. Diane Sawyer actually had her on twice in one day (on Good Morning America and 20/20). By the time I met Price, she had been interviewed by Oprah and had been featured in every major newspaper from USA Today to The Wall Street Journal. Often the pieces focused on the pain she felt because of her inability to forget difficult moments.As I followed Price’s story, I was fascinated but doubtful. I am a cognitive psychologist, and to me something didn’t smell right. Everyone seems to have an uncle or cousin with “photographic” memory, but damned if they can actually give you a phone number to reach that person. The only serious scientific paper documenting photographic memory was published nearly 40 years ago, and that study has never been replicated.Price, however, is eminently real. I spent the better part of two days with her, meeting her friends and family and watching her at the office. At the end, I can honestly say that in my decade as a professor of psychology, I’ve never encountered anyone remotely like Jill Price.Ordinary human memory is a mess. Most of us can recall the major events in our lives, but the memory of Homo sapiens pales when compared with your average laptop. It takes us far longer to store data (you might have to hear a phone number five to 10 times before you can repeat it); it’s easy for us to forget things we’ve learned (try reciting anything from your sophomore history class); and it’s sometimes hard to dislodge outdated information (St. Petersburg will always remain Leningrad to me). Worse, our memories are vulnerable to contamination and distortion. Lawyers can readily fool us with suggestive questions; false memories can easily be implanted.The fundamental problem is the seemingly haphazard fashion in which our memories are organized. On a computer, every single bit of information is stored at a specific location, from which it can always be retrieved. Human recall is hit or miss. Neuroscientific research tells us that our brains don’t use a fixed-address system, and memories tend to overlap, combine, and disappear for reasons no one yet understands.The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time? If I try to summon that experience, I am likely to wind up with a blur—a half dozen indistinct recollections. And no brain-scan technology will help me bring it into better focus.So when I hear about Price’s feats, my mind boggles. From the perspective of evolution, finding a human being with memory that works with the precision of a computer would be like finding someone with bones made of steel. The type of memory system we have—in technical terms, context-dependent rather than location-addressable—has been around for several hundred million years. The existence of a human brain that works completely differently is astronomically unlikely.
Media sensation Jill Price in the Southern California home she shares with her parents.Photo: Bryce DuffyYet here I am, and here is Price. The three UC Irvine scientists who studied her decided that her case deserved its own name—hyperthymestic syndrome, academic Greek for “exceptional memory”—and it’s not hard to see why.I come prepared with a stack of questionnaires, and when we return to her house, Price is kind enough to let me administer my tests, easily blowing through the first few. I ask, for example, if she can tell me some dates of famous accidents and airline crashes; she’s all but unstoppable. She instantly retrieves from memory the exact dates of the explosions of space shuttle Challenger and Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. She remembers not just that September 25, 1978, was when a PSA flight crashed in San Diego but also that the jet collided with a Cessna. She can go in either direction, disaster to date or date to disaster. When I say “January 13, 1982,” Price has no trouble recalling the Air Florida flight that plummeted into the Potomac.
Jill Price keeps a detailed diary of her activities, including the time she spent with the author.
According to McGaugh’s Neurocase article, Price is even more astounding on the events of her own life. At the scientists’ behest, for example, she recalled—without warning and in just 10 minutes—what she’d done on every Easter since 1980. “April 6, 1980: 9th grade, Easter vacation ends. April 19, 1981: 10th grade, new boyfriend, H. April 11, 1982: 11th grade, grandparents visiting for Passover …”Soon, though, the limitations of her memory begin to show. My next questionnaire is on the just-concluded 2008 presidential election, and here things go less well. She is off by a few days on Hillary Clinton’s withdrawal from the race and clueless on the Iowa caucuses. Price nails both the Republican convention and the St. Louis vice presidential debate (she was at a regular Thursday dinner that night) but can’t say the precise date when Obama clinched the nomination. When it comes to the 2004 election, she opts out entirely. I soon find that except for her own personal history and certain categories like television and airplane crashes, Price’s memory isn’t much better than anyone else’s. She struggled in school, is no good at history before 1965, and seems genuinely miffed that she was once asked when the Magna Carta was signed (“Do I look like I’m 500 years old?”).For a scientist like me, the real test is to see how well Price can remember something new. I am especially interested in memory distortions. If you read an average person a list of words like thread, pin, eye, sewing, sharp, point, prick, thimble, haystack, thorn, hurt, injection, syringe, cloth, and knitting, and then ask them to repeat the words, they’ll likely imagine they’ve heard needle even though it’s not on the list.Can Price sail past the trap of memory distortion? No, she can’t. I read her five lists of words drawn from a psychological test known as the DRM, and not only does she miss a number of words, she also recalls hearing three I didn’t say. Her performance may be a little above average, but no more than that.If Price’s memory of her own history is so precise, why is it so average for everything else? Or, more to the point, if her memory for everything else is so ordinary, why is her memory of her own history so extraordinary? The answer has nothing to do with memory and everything to do with personality.Price remembers so much about herself because she thinks about herself—and her past—almost constantly. She still has every stuffed animal she’s ever gotten, enough (as she showed me in a photograph) to completely cover the surface of her childhood bed. She has 2,000 videotapes and countless audiotapes, not to mention more than 50,000 pages of diary entries in idiosyncratic handwriting—so dense that it’s almost unreadable. Until recently she owned a copy of every TV Guide since summer 1989. I’m not sure Price wants to catalog her life like this, but she can’t help herself. When she tells me that one of her biggest regrets in life is that no one followed her around with a microphone during her childhood, I’m not the least bit surprised. In her own words, she lives as if there’s a split screen running in her mind—one half on the present, the other on the past.The onset of Price’s exceptional recall seems to be closely tied to a painful event: her family’s move from South Orange, New Jersey, to Los Angeles on June 29, 1974. For Price, life can be neatly divided into periods before and after that childhood trauma, and her detailed memories begin just after the move.Even as an adult, Price continues to be haunted by separation anxiety. She has lived with her parents her entire life, and her anxiety about moving recurred in 2003, at age 37, when her parents decided to take a smaller house. Just as Price hadn’t wanted to leave South Orange as a child, she dreaded leaving the only home she’d known since she was 8. Packing her memorabilia for storage took more than a month. Perhaps the hardest part was the thought that she’d have to leave behind a piece of wallpaper on which she’d recorded minor personal details for nearly 30 years. In the end, and much to the consternation of the family’s realtor, Price took a razor blade to the wall and peeled off one more cherished souvenir.In the time I spend with her, I notice that the not-particularly-foulmouthed Price is very fond of the expression that so-and-so “shits and farts just like the rest of us”—as in “Joe Movie Star might make a lot of money, but he still shits and farts like anyone else.” By the third time I hear her utter this phrase, I can’t help but notice its relevance to her own life: Price may display unusually complete recall of her own past, but her memory is the same blurry patchwork as everyone else’s.The difference is that she scans her past relentlessly. Every time we think about something, and especially how it connects to something else, we get better at remembering it—a phenomenon that psychologists call elaborative encoding. Price has spent her whole life ruminating on the past, constructing timelines and lists, and contemplating the connections between one February 19 and the next. Dates and memories are her constant companions, and as a result she’s really good at remembering her past. End of story.
The memory woman clings tightly to her past.Photo: Courtesy Jill PriceWhy were Price’s abilities blown so far out of proportion? I wouldn’t blame Price; she’s as happy to tell what she doesn’t remember as what she does. But her story has taken on a life of its own. It started with that 2006 journal article: Although the scientists knew about Price’s diaries and compulsions, little in the paper speaks to the question of whether it might be personality, not memory, that makes her extraordinary. Then there was the editor at Free Press who gave Price’s book the manifestly false title The Woman Who Can’t Forget, along with the equally overblown subtitle The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science. And don’t forget the credulous media that ate up the story—without, apparently, ever seeking a second opinion from scientists not involved in the case.Lost in all the hype is an inconvenient fact: Price’s brain was scanned more than two years ago, and the results—not yet published—apparently don’t support the notion that she’s some kind of memory goddess. Her hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are reportedly normal. The one significant aberration, according to Price—who was told about the scans by doctors who won’t discuss them publicly—is that her brain resembles those of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.The true nature of Price’s memory becomes clear to me by the end of our first day of interviews, but I don’t know whether to tell her. I try to keep my thoughts to myself when I meet her on day two in her office, where she works as a hyperkinetic, hyperorganized school administrator. But she wants to know what I’m going to write. I panic—worrying that her feelings will be hurt—and wonder how I’m going to explain.While I’m stalling, she tells me about an article on memory published that morning in The Wall Street Journal; she’s mentioned and wants to know what I think. She prints it out for me, and I skim through it. McGaugh, the lead author of the original Neurocase article, is quoted—talking, of all things, about elaborative encoding.I start slowly—griping about the newspaper article, which I find to be a bit sloppy scientifically; I scarcely mention Price or what the author has to say about her. But eventually I come to the main point and read aloud from the critical paragraph: “What if you want to remember more about each passing day? One simple method is to keep a journal. Writing down a few thoughts and events every day not only makes a tangible record, it also requires you to reflect.”Isn’t that Price to a T? Doesn’t it explain why her forte is autobiographical memory rather than, say, recalling dates in ancient history? I think the answers are obviously yes, and I tell her so.”But I didn’t search this out,” she protests, denying that her obsessions have anything to do with her memory. No, but that doesn’t matter, I say. I explain how her rumination on the past isn’t something she does voluntarily, but whenever she does it, the connections between her memories are strengthened. Price is quiet for a moment, thinking about what I’ve said. “This is OCD,” she says softly. “I have OCD of my memories.”Three similar hyperthymestics have come forward since the 2006 journal article, each with spectacular autobiographical memory, and all three have similar OCD-like habits. They all collect things and are obsessed with dates and events. (One went so far as to write an unpublished work titled The Book of Bob.) The truth is, most people could remember their lives in considerable detail if they contemplated them with the same manic intensity. When I bring my theory about Price to McGaugh, he concedes that I could be right. “We remain puzzled and open to alternative interpretations,” he says.But even if Price’s memory is just the byproduct of obsession, she’s still amazing. I’ve come to think of her as the Michael Jordan of autobiography. Jordan wasn’t born the greatest basketball player of all time; he became the greatest, combining considerable but not unique innate talent with an incredible amount of hard work shooting free throws and practicing jumpers long after most of his peers were out carousing. Whether intentionally or not, Price has shown the same sort of daily dedication to chronicling her own life.For her, it’s been a mixed blessing. Price doesn’t just remember the past, she feels it—vividly—and bad personal experiences linger. But she can’t really imagine being like the rest of us, either. For two days, she’s been asking what it’s like to be me. Do I remember what happened on November 10, 2003? Or November 10, 1998? Nope, nada. I haven’t a clue. When I jokingly ask, “So, you think the rest of us are retarded?” she just giggles. She doesn’t, she says, but she also wouldn’t give up her memory for anything.Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist at New York University and the author of Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind.
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