Woman Who Can't Forget

My colleague, Dalia Martinez, produced today's segment with Jill Price, the author of The Woman Who Can't Forget. And she kindly offered to blog about it.

It must be frustrating. This was my first reaction to Jill Price's story. When I pre-interviewed her for today's segment about her memoir, The Woman Who Can't Forget, she told me she was diagnosed with "an autobiographical superior memory." Throw any random day from that last 20 years, and she can detail what she wore, the weather that day, and what played on TV. Impressive? Yes. But she was quick to point out that her ability carries an emotional toll. "I live in the present and work and have friends but I also have a split screen in my head with memories flowing non-stop," she told me. Imagine, reliving everything... from the joys of a proposal to every single hurtful argument. Even when friends and family move past a death and the wounds of harsh words, her ability to "get over it" is gone. I can't imagine, I told her. But she couldn't imagine not remembering those small, everyday details.

Scientist call her condition "hyperthymestic syndrome." Over the years, she said this condition has tormented her. She's written a book because she thinks her condition can help science understand some of the mysterious workings of memory. Today, talk we talk to Price and one of the scientists that treated her.

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I understand that she keeps a very detailed diary. Is that related? I'm not suggesting that it is the source of her remembering but is it a compulsion to keep the diary or in some other way a part of her (dis)ability?

Sent by mike | 2:48 PM | 5-19-2008

I wonder if there is any evidence of a limit to the amount of information that can be stored in memory? Will Jill run out of "space" and have to replace older memories?

Sent by Chris Snyder | 3:26 PM | 5-19-2008

Thank you. I also have a autobiographical memory. Not to the extent of your guest, but cleary above what any of my friends and relatives have. When I bring up memories with old friends, they have always asked "Yah... and what kind of socks were you wearing that day??" The clarity of my memories have usualy been met with skeptisism. After hearing this interview, my ability feels much more like a gift than a burden.

Sent by erik | 3:29 PM | 5-19-2008

Could this be in any way related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Sent by coreen | 3:29 PM | 5-19-2008

I also have a similar memory and find it difficult to move on when things happen with family or friends. My earliest memory was 12 months.

Sent by Virginia Walter | 3:29 PM | 5-19-2008

Like her, my memory seems to be that way. I remember vividly so many things in my past good and bad. I write things down but unlike this woman - I trash them in a few days or weeks. My sense of smell is very strong, so certain smells bring out the the very atmosphere and events of things 30, 40, 50 years! But I remember too much! So maybe it is not a rare thing.

Sent by Janie | 3:32 PM | 5-19-2008

Hi,
I'm a hypnotherapist and worked with a man who had amnesia following a motorcycle accident. The hypnosis helped him recover his memory. I'm wondering if hypnosis can also help hide memories.

Sent by Sydney Metrick | 3:32 PM | 5-19-2008

I've read about a Russian reporter, perhaps in the 1950s, who had the same type memory. He was also tormented by the inability to forget and his story was documented by the psychiatrist who treated him.

Also, does Jill have any synesthesia associated with her memory? The Russian reporter was strongly synesthetic, as are many with superior memories.

Sent by tim anderson | 3:36 PM | 5-19-2008

Jill mentions that she has trouble sleeping.

I don't think that I have the same degree of recall that she does, but I have felt plagued by my ability to remember minute details of almost every aspect of my life as well. I also have struggled with insomnia my whole life - even in childhood.

I wonder if the neurologist thinks these two things are related.

Sent by Megan | 3:36 PM | 5-19-2008

I'm wondering how this affects the way Jill lives her life, and if she doesn't take risks due to the potential painful recall.

Sent by Brittanie Williams | 3:38 PM | 5-19-2008

It is critical for all of us to participate in service activities. It gives us each a sense of connection and a warm memory. How much more important it must be for Jill to actively seek and catalog such activities. I wish her all the best.

Sent by Bill Campsey | 3:39 PM | 5-19-2008

I wonder if there is a continuum of this condition, ranging from her very detailed/date related recall, to those of us without the date recall but much of the other 'symptoms' such as detailed memory, smells/sounds triggering detailed memories, vivid dream recall, etc. I just thought everyone has this thing. Just not the calendar perfect recall. I don't want to be studied, just want to quit being so tormented by all my memories. It was interesting to hear her talk about forgiveness when you can't forget. I used to avoid things so that they would not get into my memory. I don't have a tv now, which helps. Thanks for this program, just as profound to me as hearing Temple Grandin talk about her autism experience, which answered still more questions about my childhood, and life.

Sent by hannah | 3:41 PM | 5-19-2008

My brother has near perfect recall, however by date. One remarkable aspect and a huge difference is that he can learn new languages very easily. It combines with his ability to do impressions, so that he speaks w/o an accent.

Sent by emma | 3:42 PM | 5-19-2008

Written in 1950, the book "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" by L. Ron Hubbard, fully explains this phenomena and the means by which to put painful and unpleasant mental image pictures (memories) to rest. The phenomena is called "Wide Open Case" in this book.

Sent by Beverly | 3:46 PM | 5-19-2008

I'm listening to this story with great interest, since I have a slightly weaker version of what Jill is describing. I'm 30 years old, and remember vivid details such as where my family ate lunch on Day 4 of a vacation 20 years ago. I'm also a lifelong collector of various keepsakes, which I probably hold onto because I remember their original context so well. Like Jill, I often have trouble sleeping because I'll recall some very minor event from over a decade ago and regret that I didn't do something differently at the time. I'll be very interested to learn more about the biology behind this gift/curse.

Sent by Chris | 3:47 PM | 5-19-2008

My God! At least there's a name for it. This has been a nightmare for me throughout my life: living my life in the now but having to relive moments of my past over and over -remembering -and even reliving- those events and feelings (yes, humiliating and otherwise) while looking and judging those events from the present perspective. The question one need ask is not how Jill sees and forgives others, but how she sees herself when she's in a position of reliving those things that are excruciating to recall. The problem with this disorder is that one cannot stop the recall from happening. Can she stop judging herself, much less forgive? I don't want to be "studied" for this problem, I want it to stop!

Sent by Jack Frydenlund | 3:51 PM | 5-19-2008

This program was a revelation, for I swear that I have suffered my entire life with this same kind of memory, but did not know how rare it was. I only know that it has often made life unbearable.
One revelatory moment came a few years ago when my my mother was extremely ill, and during our conversations, I described the wallpaper I was looking at when I was a child lying in bed, listening to music, and she gasped, for it was wallpaper that was in the nursery during my first year of life.

This, however, is certainly not the extent of it. I recall things in such vivid detail that I have often said that there is no such thing as a good memory, for a sad memory, of course, make one sad, but the happy memories make one sad, as well.

Again, even though the ability made me feel alienated, I did not know how rare this ability was, and I looked for clues that I was not alone. For example, when Dylan sings, in "Honest With Me,"These memories I got, they can strangle a man," I thought it was evidence that Dylan had the same kind of memory and that I certainly was not alone.

Sent by Richard Hart | 3:57 PM | 5-19-2008

I grew up with a memory like this as well - recalling details of daily events and routines years past, plus recalling numbers, verbatim conversations, license plates, assorted random details - and also had the emotional charge associated with every event remembered. And I saved tons of mementos, too - my wife finds this part frustrating. But unlike Jill, my memory started to fade in my late twenties, but not the burden: I still sometimes recall when I said the wrong thing when I was sixteen, say, and hurt someone's feelings and now feel a twinge of guilt twenty years later; or sometimes remember old arguments and still relive them involuntarily. So I guess the memory (and visualization) has faded, but not the emotional charges associated. I think I'd rather it were the other way around. I'm glad to learn, though, that there are others out there.

Sent by Matthew | 4:13 PM | 5-19-2008

I heard the radio broadcast. What Hannah said rings true for me. I have relatives that couldn't tell you what they ate for breakfast this morning, but I recall all kinds of "events". Friends and family seem to marvel at my recall, but it's nothing like Jill's. Like so many respondents it seems there are memories that come back unbidden to torment me (particularly at night when I should be sleeping). However, all day every day would make me a basket case. I can't help but admire how Jill has dealt with this, and hope that there is some relief for her and those of you who share her burden.

Sent by Jim | 4:50 PM | 5-19-2008

How can I hear the whole show? I dialed in during the last 5 minutes of it, and I'm hooked: Where is the link for the web-stream of today's TOTN?

Sent by Matt | 5:19 PM | 5-19-2008

Mike asked about her detailed diary. Apparently, the region of her brain that is so much larger than average is also related to OCD, and it has been speculated that her meticulous detailed diaries are related to OCD tendencies.

Sent by Kim | 5:27 PM | 5-19-2008

Wow this is a bunch of crap.

If she truly had perfect recall, she would have no way to distinguish between recent memories and distant memories. Since both memories are perfectly clear, there would be know way to tell which memory came first. The manifestation of this would be completely debilitating.

For example, she would never know where she parked her car at the office. In her mind, there would be no difference in her memory of parking her car two days ago or twelve years ago. How would she know which memory was the most recent, and in turn, which memory to take action upon?

Her life would be a complete mess, not just a partial mess.

She doesn't have total recall, not even close.

Sent by Todd Dumas | 7:08 PM | 5-19-2008

My experience with memory recall has led to my doing everything I can not to make new memories. When i meet you i will not listen to your name, look in your eyes, or speak openly to you about my personal views on most any topic. I have invented my own interpretation of time and get anxiety about even looking at a calendar, just to avoid the flood of memories that get triggered. This is a difficult way of living and it drives me crazy. Reliving detailed memories rank with emotion and regret torments me. They come from nowhere and i am forced to face them as if they are fresh and it seems that only the difficult ones haunt me. A lot of people are oblivious (how i envy them) but being willfully oblivious takes work! When all those i share my life with forgive and forget i remember all too well and seem to take every failure of the past no matter how miniscule and engrave it on my mind to dig up later. If my mind is a mansion where i house my memories, i've boarded the windows, locked the door and swallowed the key. I'm glad to know others feel this way as well, although it would sit better if it was just my personal curse.

Sent by Kurt Gindling | 9:44 PM | 5-19-2008

Why, in the entire of history of humans, would this only manifest now. Wouldn't one think this would be a sideshow for Victorian America?
What has changed?

Sent by Chad Rubin | 9:48 PM | 5-19-2008

I couldn't relate to the diary keeping behavior at all. Sometimes, when I realize I almost completely forgot about something, it makes me happy, so the last thing I want to do is to write everything down in a journal of some sort and, by doing so, rehearse all of the details once again.

Sent by Richard Hart | 10:11 PM | 5-19-2008

my memory might not even be ten percent of this woman but I do remember alot of things that my friends don't remember and I remember these things accuratly and i do trust my memory and lately I have compensated for my memory with a digital camera and I just take pictures of things that might seem usefull like taking a picture of an engine before you take it apart or taking a picture of electrical wiring before you rewire a car or a building. I remember alot of things and I remember bad things but bad things might be more like regrets and regrets are memory triggers. I too remember when I was three years and my grandfather would take me to the balcony to watch the sunset and I remember how to get back to mexico in vivid detail, I remember how to get to the beach and every other place that my parents have ever taken me. I never get lost and I remember when in this order, when I was a boy I remember imparcialy but when I was a teenager I remember with great embarrasment at times and now I remember things with great regret even if one day you hesitate for a second you might regret it forever so if you are the type of person that remembers every bad thing then live your life up to the standards that you have to in order to feel at peace. Don't live with fear, don't hesitate to the right thing, don't lie, don't do anything you will regret and you can only start a new slate if you clean the last one and it's never too late. never too late!!

Sent by angel | 1:55 AM | 5-20-2008

I get the total recall and it may not be faked but the complaint about the bad memories is very weak because we all have regrets and we all remember horrible things that have happened to us or things that we have seen and we remember them when we are eating a sandwich or when we are holding our kids.

so deal with it

Sent by angel | 2:04 AM | 5-20-2008

Could this be related to Aspergers or other Autism Spectrum Disorders? I know someone with Asperger's who remembers the weather of every day of her life (going back 40+ years).

Sent by Amelia | 2:28 AM | 5-20-2008

I'm sorry but this is really silly. We all remember our lives, and we all suffer from the pain of bad memories. Some people choose to move on with life and others choose to hold on to the emotions of memories. I suffer the same pain when I am unexpectedly reminded of a painful event in my life. Be it emotional or physical. This is all a publicity thing to sell the book.

Sent by Get Real, MI | 10:47 AM | 5-20-2008

I don't see any real significance in this woman's story. I just assumed that most people remember their past experiences and are able to recall quite accurately historical events their lives. I just don't see any special ability in her particular case.

Sent by David | 1:35 PM | 5-20-2008

I listened to the interview with Jill, and she did not sound like a pleasant person. She speaks of carrying on a normal life and experiencing many emotions and being able to recall and remember those emotions and feelings. However, when she was being interviewed or questioned she sounded condescending and distant. I guess I am wondering if Jill appears this way because of her situation?
Also, did her tone of voice sound as neagative or uninterested as I found it?

Sent by Nicole | 2:09 PM | 5-20-2008

Get Real, I truly don't believe you understand the depth of these memories. Like "hannah" posted earlier, I think that there is--like there is for all behaviors--a continuum that exists. If you imagine a straight line, the far left of the straight line would be those who are unable to remember anything, and on the far right would be those who would be able to remember every minute detail of their lives. People like you would be plotted at midpoint; your memories are excellent and certain stimuli would trigger specific moments related to those stimuli. You are reminded of a painful event, as you have stated, and you feel the emotions associated with that event. Again, that would be the norm. It would be presumptuous of you to think that there are not increased degrees of memory beyond yours just because you have no personal experience with those degrees. (Just because we have never witnessed something does not mean that it has never happened.) I am assuming that Jill Price's ability to remember would be plotted very close to the far right. Mine, like "hannah's," would be plotted somewhere to the left of Jill's.
I can tell you that life has been painful for me--not just because I remember sad events but because there is a sadness that comes from being able to remember even emotionally neutral events in a way that is so intense that it makes one disassociate from the present.
I certainly would not--based on my own experiences and on what I know now of Jill Price's--want to be Jill Price.

Sent by Richard Hart | 3:21 PM | 5-20-2008

Thank you so much for this presentation. I truly apreciate knowing that there are other people out there that deal with this; it offered me some solace. Just as an example, I had a job where clients were registered for an exam by their social security number. Often, these clients would come back to retake the test or to take other tests and I would remember their social security number. People found this very disconcerting so I stopped looking at the numbers. Certainly, that is a minor thing. Most of the comments have covered the spectrum, disbelief to pity. I neither disbelieve Jill nor pity her. Yes, there are things I wish I didn't have to see in my head, the deaths of loved ones, accidents where loved ones were injured, I recall them as if I were experiencing them again. I have struggled to come to a point where, sometimes, I can tell myself that "I don't have to think about this now." and give myself another memory to think about. It doesn't always work, but I'm getting better at it. Thanks again.

Sent by T | 3:46 PM | 5-21-2008

You have no idea who this woman is. Actually, she has no idea who she is. She has all of you buffaloed!! Just goes to show......

Sent by Luke | 9:49 PM | 6-10-2008

It was pretty funny to me that at one point she couldn't even remember the first of a two part question she had been asked! And it's hard to understand why she just didn't remember everything her teachers taught in school. Strange...

Sent by Ron Rucker | 7:39 PM | 6-24-2008

Comments by Ron Rucker : "It was pretty funny to me that at one point she couldn't even remember the first of a two part question she had been asked! And it's hard to understand why she just didn't remember everything her teachers taught in school. Strange..."

Actually, it's not strange at all. First, there's a huge difference in short term and long term memory. Without "rehearsal," the etching into long term memory the data of short term memory by way of repetition, whether it be conscious or subconscious repetition, short term memory data is lost.
In addition, the woman is clearly uncomfortable with the role of radio guest; the pressures of appearing on a NPR broadcast clearly had her a bit frazzled, and her discomfort interfered with her concentration.
In regard to remembering everything that she was taught in school, she probably does remember a great deal--perhaps, more than some of her peers--but the autobiographical memory is most likely concomitant with a high degree of self-consciousness--self-consciousness that would interfere with concentration. (She might not remember who Herodotus is, but she probably remembers how the girl sitting next to her in class kept looking at her shoes.) [I apologize for the vague pronoun reference, but either interpretation will work.]
Lastly, though I am confident that excruciatingly detailed memory does exist, there is certainly nothing wrong with someone questioning things, with being skeptical. Anything, that is stated as being fact begs to be tested or disproved. However, neither of Mr. Rucker's observations disprove anything.

Sent by Richard Hart | 3:04 AM | 7-23-2008