Jill Price can recall every detail of the last three decades of her life — whether she wants to or not. A rare memory condition causes Price to experience continuous, automatic playback of events.
"My memories are like scenes from home movies of every day of my life," she writes, "constantly playing in my head, flashing forward and backward through the years relentlessly, taking me to any given moment, entirely of their own volition."
Price talks about her new memoir, The Woman Who Can't Forget, and Dr. James McGaugh, professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California talks about treating her rare hyperthymestic syndrome.
The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! —Fanny Price, in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
I know very well how tyrannical the memory can be. I have the first diagnosed case of a memory condition that the scientists who have studied me termed hyperthymestic syndrome — the continuous, automatic autobiographical recall of every day of my life from when I was age fourteen on. My memory started to become shockingly complete in 1974, when I was eight years old. From 1980 on, it is near perfect. Give me a date from that year forward and I can instantly tell you what day of the week it was, what I did on that day, and any major event that took place — or even minor events — as long as I heard about them on that day.
My memories are like scenes from home movies of every day of my life, constantly playing in my head, flashing forward and backward through the years relentlessly, taking me to any given moment, entirely of their own volition. Imagine if someone had made videos of you from the time you were a child, following you around all day, day by day, and then combined them all onto one DVD, and you sat in a room and watched that DVD on a machine set to shuffle randomly through all the tracks. There you are as a ten-year-old in your family room watching The Brady Bunch; then you're whisked off to a scene of you at seventeen driving around town with your best friends; and before long you're on the beach during a family vacation when you were three. That's how I experience my memories. I never know what I might remember next, and my recall is so vivid and true to life that it's as though I'm actually reliving the days, for good and for bad.
I can recall memories at will when I'm asked to, but on a regular basis my remembering is automatic. I don't make any effort to call memories up; they just fill my mind. In fact, they're not under my conscious control, and much as I'd like to, I can't stop them. They will pop into my head, maybe triggered by someone mentioning a date or a name, or I'll hear a song on the radio, and whether I want to return to a particular time or not, my mind is off and running right to that moment. My recall doesn't stop there, with one memory; it rushes from one to a next and a next, flipping wildly through days as though they're cards in a Rolodex.
As I grew up and more and more memories were stored in my brain, more and more of them flashed through my mind in this endless barrage, and I became a prisoner to my memory. The emotional stress of the rush of memories was compounded by the fact that because my memory worked so differently from the norm, it was incredibly difficult to explain to anyone else what was going on in my mind. I had a condition that had never before been diagnosed, and as much as I would try to explain how my memories assaulted me, my parents couldn't really grasp the nature of what was happening.
My mother would tell me not to dwell on things so much, and I'd try to explain that I wasn't dwelling, that the memories just flooded my mind. But that didn't make any sense to her. Nobody could understand, including me, and in time I was so frustrated by trying to describe the experience that I simply gave up and began keeping it almost entirely to myself.
Though I hate the idea of losing any of my memories, it's also true that learning how to manage a life in the present with so much of the past continually replaying itself in my mind has been quite a challenge, often a debilitating one. I have struggled through many difficult episodes of being emotionally overwhelmed by my memory through the course of my life. Then finally I decided I had to reach out and try to discover whatever I could about what was going on in my head and why. By a stroke of what now seems to me divine providence, I went online and did a search for "memory," and to my great good fortune, the first entry that came up was to Dr. James McGaugh, a leading memory researcher affiliated with the University of California at Irvine (UCI).
I had been sure that my search would send me to some Web site all about memory and that I'd read about other people like me. Little did I know just how unusual my condition is. Though nothing on the Web could explain my memory, the next best thing it could have done was to take me to Dr. McGaugh. He is one of the foremost memory experts in the world and the author of over 500 scientific papers on human memory. His list of awards and honors was impressive, and I saw that he had lectured at a host of universities and institutions around the world. I can't say that I understood much of what I read about his work — the titles of the papers alone were daunting — but as soon as I found him, I thought, "This is the man who's going to tell me what's going on."
Even so, I felt some trepidation about contacting him. Would he be interested in me? Would he have time for me? I would be contacting him out of the blue, and he was clearly a very busy man. It took me three days to compose an e-mail to him, but at last, on June 8, 2000, I sent it off:
Dear Dr. McGaugh,
As I sit here trying to figure out where to begin explaining why I am writing you and your colleague, I just hope somehow you can help me. I am thirty-four years old and since I was eleven I have had this unbelievable ability to recall my past. I can take a date, between 1974 and today, and tell you what day it falls on, what I was doing that day and if anything of great importance occurred on that day. Whenever I see a date flash on the television I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was and what I was doing. It is non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting. . . .
Amazingly, he responded within 90 minutes, saying that if I lived anywhere close to UCI, he would be interested in meeting with me. That was a watershed moment in my life. How fortunate that I lived right up the highway from him, only an hour away in Los Angeles.
Though I was nervous and even scared about reaching out to the scientific community, the clarification and validation the scientists have given me about how my memory works, and that it is so unusual, has been a source of significant comfort. I am also greatly heartened to have learned that it turns out that the ways in which my memory is so different shed a good deal of light on many important mysteries about memory—and also about forgetting. My hope now is that the study of my memory will not only hold answers to long-standing questions about how normal human memory works but may lead to significant findings about the tragic disorders of memory loss.
The work I've done with Dr. McGaugh and his team has already helped me to see not only my own life in new terms, but also the lives of others and how memory plays such a powerful role in everyone's life. I've realized with more clarity, as I've reflected on my life in the process of writing this book and been exposed to findings in a broad range of memory science, just how profoundly our memories assist in constructing our sense of who we are and of the meaning of our lives. Whereas people generally create narratives of their lives that are fashioned by a process of selective remembering and an enormous amount of forgetting, and continually recraft that narrative through the course of life, I have not been able to do so. I came to realize in a flash of insight one day that whereas memory generally contributes to the construction of our sense of self, in my case, in so many ways my memory is my sense of self.
I do have a storehouse of memories that are more important to me than others and that I travel to often in my mind for comfort and as a refuge, but I have all the other days there too, impressing themselves on me all the time. It's as though I have all of my prior selves still inside me, the self I was on every day of my life, like her or not, nested as in a Russian doll—inside today's Jill are complete replicas of yesterday's Jill and the Jills for all the days stretching so far back in time. In that sense, I don't so much have a story of my self as I have a remarkably detailed memory of my self. Paring that down to cut out the mass of daily events and focus on the ways in which my memory has operated and has shaped my life has been a strange, sometimes mind-boggling experience, but one for which I am grateful because it has given me more clarity about the forces that have shaped my life.
I have always been a private person, and the decision to venture into the open about my memory was wrenching for me. But I've decided to tell the story of my journey because my work with the scientists has helped me to understand so much better that the way my memory works can throw useful light on what memory means in everyone's lives.
My greatest hope is that eventually scientists will discover something about my brain that will help solve the riddles of the tragic disorders of memory loss. The scientists have already determined from the scans of my brain that there are pronounced structural differences that probably account for why my memory is so complete and so relentless. I've learned from them how many mysteries about memory they're still grappling with, and it does seem that what they've learned about my brain and memory will lead to fruitful research. For now, I hope that my story is illuminating and thought provoking for readers; and helps explain the role of memory in all of our lives — as well as that of forgetting — and how our memories to such a significant degree make us who we are.