Woman's Long-Term Memory Astonishes Scientists

Neurobiologist James McGaugh is one of the world's leading experts on how human memory works. In the current issue of the journal Neurocase, McGaugh reports on a woman with the astonishing ability to clearly remember events that happened to her decades ago.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We turn now to the story of a woman with an astonishing memory.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine report she can remember instantly and vividly, nearly every day of her life for more than 25 years. They believe she is unique in medical history.

Michelle Trudeau reports.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

Six years ago, a young woman contacted memory researcher James McGaugh, claiming to have a near-perfect memory of her past. McGaugh reads the e-mail from her.

Dr. JAMES MCGAUGH (neurobiologist): It said "Dear Dr. McGaugh. As I sit here trying to figure out where to begin explaining why I'm writing to you and your colleague, I just hope somehow you can help me.

I'm 34 years old, and since I was 11, I've had this unbelievable ability to recall my past."

TRUDEAU: McGaugh, as one of world's authorities on memory, was intrigued. He reads more from her e-mail.

Dr. MCGAUGH: "I can take a date between 1974 and today, and tell you what day it falls on, what I was doing on that day, and if anything of great importance occurred on that day, I can describe to you that as well."

TRUDEAU: But as a scientist, McGaugh was very skeptical when he first heard from this woman. He has stacks of files on people claiming to have extraordinary memories that turned out to be fakes.

So McGaugh and his colleagues, Elizabeth Parker and Larry Cahill(ph), met with the woman, whom they refer to as A.J., to protect her privacy--and began testing her extensively over the past six years. And now, the researchers are convinced A.J. is for real. So they've published her story in the current issue of the Journal, Neurocase.

McGaugh describes A.J.'s extraordinary memory.

Dr. MCGAUGH: If you take any significant public event that made newspaper headlines, or even second page newspaper, or was on television--she would get it accurately and be able to provide, not only details of the event, but details of her life on the day of that.

TRUDEAU: Details that McGaugh was able to verify with A.J.'s mother and with the volumes of daily diaries A.J. kept since she was ten years old.

But the researchers know that A.J. isn't merely recalling details that she's memorized from her own diaries and other sources, because she can recall effortlessly and rapidly, information that's not in her diaries. That she's never been asked about before.

Dr. MCGAUGH: One that stunned me was Bing Crosby. I asked her if she knew who Bing Crosby was. And she did. She's not of the Bing Crosby era as she's only 40 years old. But she knew who he was nonetheless. I said, do you know what happened to him? And she said, yes, he died on a golf course in Spain, on a certain day in a certain year. And she knew--I don't remember what it was, but she knew.

TRUDEAU: The researchers also tested A.J.'s verbal memory, her spatial memory, her memory for lists, her IQ. Now, in all the memory testing, A.J. was never told in advance what dates or news events the researchers were going to ask her about.

Dr. MCGAUGH: If you asked her about the O.J. Simpson trial, as I did, she will tell you the date of the murders; the date of the arrest; The first day of the trial; the names of all of the attorneys, on both sides; the date of the first decision; the beginning of the civil trial; the amount of the award, and so on. She'll just tell you that.

TRUDEAU: Now, to McGaugh, it's A.J.'s autobiographical memory that's most astonishing. That she remembers the seemingly mundane occurrences of her daily life for the past 25 years.

Dr. MCGAUGH: If you say December 14th, 1987, she will say what day of the week it is, and she says, also, it rained that day and I was shopping with my mother, and we did this, and so on.

TRUDEAU: McGaugh says that A.J.'s particular memory ability is unique in the scientific literature. Other documented cases of superior memory have been very different, he says, and are of two main types: people who use mnemonic devices, basically memory aides such as imagery or rhyming, to memorize vast amounts of information; and the second type are savants, people who have memorized, for example, the entire New York City phone book, or 100 years of baseball statistics.

Savants have these pockets of extraordinary memory, but typically, can't function in the world. A.J., by contrast, neither uses mnemonics, nor is she a savant, says McGaugh. A.J., he says, functions just fine in the world.

And so, after six years of intensive testing, McGaugh is still deeply mystified how A.J. does it.

Dr. MCGAUGH: It's hard for a person like me to understand what it is like to have a memory like that. And all we can do is ask questions from the outside to figure it out. And we think we've figured out an awful lot about what her memory is like, without understanding yet, why it's like that.

TRUDEAU: McGaugh speculates that maybe the neural wiring of A.J.'s brain is somehow different than other people's. So the next step is to do brain scanning, hoping to illuminate how the memory regions of A.J.'s brain function to produce such a remarkable ability.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

MONTAGNE: And A.J. hasn't talked publicly until now.

A.J. (memory subject): Like, if I'm in the bathroom in the morning, getting ready--and whatever the date is, I'll think of that date and I'll go back 30 years and I'll just, you know--and then my hair will be dry.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION, A.J. tells what it's like to live each day with such an extraordinary memory.

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