NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Almost everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. Jill Price remember that and what she had for lunch, what she was wearing, what she saw on TV and not just on big and important days, but on everyday. Jill Price is both blessed and cursed with an extraordinary memory. She can recall every day since she was 12 with exact precision, the everyday items like the day of the week, what time she woke up and the weather, and highly-charged emotional events, too. The mortification of a bad report card, the excitement of her first date. And these vivid recollections play back in her mind non-stop. A song on the radio will remind her of every time she heard that song and exactly how she felt.
In a moment, she joins us to describe how her mind holds and sorts through vivid memories. Later in the hour, Mark Bowden on a long tradition of cheating in American sports. But first, Jill Price. Her new book is titled "The Woman Who Can't Forget." She joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.
Ms. JILL PRICE (Author, "The Woman Who Can't Forget"): You're welcome, Neal.
CONAN: So far as you know, is there a reason why you remember everything?
Ms. PRICE: That's what the doctors are trying to figure out right now. So I do not know.
CONAN: And similarly, I guess the associated question, why you can't forget.
Ms. PRICE: Exactly.
CONAN: And those two things - for most of us march in this elaborate dance where we remember more about today than we do about yesterday, and more about yesterday than we did the day before. For you, your mind doesn't work that way.
Ms. PRICE: Right. I remember every day.
CONAN: And is it a blessing or a curse, or what combination?
Ms. PRICE: It's both. What brought me to the doctors was the torment of my total recall. But on the flip side of that, I could reach back into very, very, early, early memories of my life that I'm sure a lot of people can't, and I'm sure that's what is the comforting part of this.
CONAN: You divide your recollections into three categories, three age groups, really. From zero to eight, when you remember more than most people, but not everything. Then until you were, I guess, just about 12 or 13, when you remember almost every day perfectly. And then from then onward, you remember everything.
Ms. PRICE: Correct.
CONAN: And those early memories that you go back to, two years old, some of them. The smell of a baked potato, you describe in the book, the smell of a baked potato takes you back to a time when you were two years old, sitting in front of the TV set while your mother was making dinner, baking potatoes.
Ms. PRICE: Right. I was sitting in my diapers watching Walter Cronkite.
CONAN: And smells, they trigger these memories all the time?
Ms. PRICE: Smells, music, if I'm watching television and they're saying a date on TV, yeah, I will automatically just go right to that day and see it.
CONAN: And these memories just go - they're not in your control. They're involuntary.
Ms. PRICE: Correct. Like right now, I'm in my present moment every day. I live with a split screen in my head. So I'm in the moment, doing my job, driving a car, talking to people, but there's also a running movie of random, free-flowing memories that don't really relate to each other that are constantly going through my head.
CONAN: And we should also explain to listeners what this memory is not. You're not Rainman. You don't remember the entire Manhattan phone book.
Ms. PRICE: No. I really have a hard time memorizing. That's why school was really difficult for me. I don't memorize, I just know it.
CONAN: And similarly, while you have this perfect autobiographical recollection, there is also an associated, sort of, I guess mathematical quality to it in that you're a perfect calendar, too.
Ms. PRICE: Yeah. But I don't, like, associate with math. I just know what days everything fell on because I see the day from what was going on in my life.
CONAN: And there's several ways that this works. I mean, you're talking about all of these associations that constantly - these involuntary things in your head, but there's also something that you can do called "traveling." Tell us about that.
Ms. PRICE: Well, that's just what was always going on. If I remember one thing, it'll actually take me to another memory and another memory, and I'm constantly chaining. So I can actually go on tangents with people and remind them of what was going on in their lives.
CONAN: And this has been a torment, in part, because...
Ms. PRICE: Because I can't forget.
CONAN: And you can't forget the emotions associated with these memories.
Ms. PRICE: Correct.
CONAN: So if you were in a temper tantrum at the age of four or five years old and that day flashes in your head, you're going to remember the tantrum and not with the remove, with the distance that an adult would have.
Ms. PRICE: Exactly.
CONAN: That must be awful.
Ms. PRICE: It is. And that's what brought me to UC Irvine because I just - not that I couldn't take it anymore, but I finally just couldn't take it anymore. And I thought that - I mean, originally I got on the computer to look to see if there were other people out there, and the first thing that I saw when I Googled the word "memory" was Dr. McGaugh's Web site. So I just wrote him a letter and I asked him to talk to me.
CONAN: This is Dr. James McGaugh, professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, at Irvine. He's going to be with us in just a moment to talk to you, but we're going to go on until we get him on the line. We're having some technical difficulties there.
So let me just explain that there are other parts of your memory - all of us, for example, and I say this knowing that this does not include you, but all of us forget our keys. I locked myself out of my apartment just yesterday. But that never happens to you.
Ms. PRICE: No, I don't forget my keys. I've had the same driver's license until I had to renew it after 11 years. Credit cards, my purse - but I do have to make notes when I go to the market, just like everybody else.
CONAN: Just like - so if you say, you know, milk, eggs, butter - you go to the market without a list, you'll forget something.
Ms. PRICE: Well, yeah, pretty much. Because it's just - my memory is my autobiographical memory. It's about my life. So with work and with going to the market or going to Target, I have to make a list.
CONAN: Tell us about the day that you first realized that this memory was perfect.
Ms. PRICE: I was 12 years old and actually, at the end of this month, it will be 30 years. It was May 30th, 1978, and I was studying for finals in seventh grade. And my mom was reading my science book to me, and this had been a really stressful year for me. School was very stressful, was very competitive and being that I'm not a great student, it was really hard on me.
So as she was reading, I started to wander about the year before, remembering what had gone on with graduating in sixth grade, and we had a class play and field trips and all of sudden I realized, as I was putting it all together at the exact days, that I remembered a year ago today.
CONAN: You remembered a year ago today precisely.
Ms. PRICE: Mm hmm. And then a couple of months later I was on the beach with a friend of mine, on July 1st, 1978, and I said to her, do you realize that we did the same exact thing a year ago today? But she did not realize. And that was the first time I ever said it out loud.
CONAN: And this was also the moment you realized that your memory is different from other people's memories.
Ms. PRICE: Yeah. I always felt that I processed differently from everybody, so that really was just a verification when she had no idea what we had done the year before.
CONAN: Joining us now is James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine. He's with us from the studios of KUCI at the University of California, Irvine. And it's very good of you to be with us today.
Dr. JAMES MCGAUGH (Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine): Well, nice to be here.
CONAN: Tell us. When you first met Jill Price, were you skeptical? Were you interested? What intrigued you?
Dr. MCGAUGH: Well, I was interested, of course, because she sent me a message saying that she had very strong memories of every day of her life. And since my interest is in strong memories and how the brain makes them, I really had to interview her.
Now recall or note that all scientists are skeptical. That's our business. We have to be skeptical of what we say, what we do, how we think. And so initially, she had to demonstrate to us that she, in fact, had the capacity that she claimed to. So that's what our first couple of interviews were all about, were to ensure that she had good memories of public events, things that are in the headlines on television, in newspapers, magazines and so on, and good recollection of her own private, personal experiences over the years.
CONAN: And did she?
Dr. MCGAUGH: Yes, she did. Now with respect to the public events, that's easy to test because public events are - well, public events. So we had a big book of things that happened over the decades, and I pulled out a lot of information to test her about what happened on particular days. I would give her a date and ask her what happened on that date, or I would give her an event and ask her to tell us the date and the day of that significant event. And on that she did extremely well and still does to this day.
On the other hand, we had to ask her about what she did in her private life, and you have to ask the question, well, how would we know? Because if she makes the claim that something happened on a particular day, we would need to have some way of validating that in order to be sure that that was actually true.
Fortunately for us, she kept a diary for a number of years and so we were able to spot-check and determined that in every case where we spot-checked, what she claimed to have happened on that day did, in fact, happen according to the diary which had not been opened in a long time.
CONAN: And by the way, if you think you hear music playing in the background of this interview, well, you do. There's a band in the studio next door to us. They're at the University of California, Irvine, and they're practicing and it's bleeding into the studio a little bit. We apologize for that, but we wanted to talk to James McGaugh.
And we're going to go to a break shortly, but Jill Price, you talked about the torment that this gave to you. A lot of people would think this perfect recall, this catalogue of their lives would be a blessing, an unalloyed blessing. Why has it caused you so much pain?
Ms. PRICE: I mean, in some ways, it is a blessing because I can remember a lot of the good things that happened in my life, but I also remember all the bad things and the regrets. And if I had only done this, and if I didn't do this, and I just am constantly doing that to myself. And that's the torment of my total recall.
CONAN: And do those memories come up disproportionately a greater amount of the time than the happy memories?
Ms. PRICE: Yeah.
CONAN: So you ruminate on them. You chew them over.
Ms. PRICE: Yeah.
CONAN: And I guess a lot of us do that late-at-night problems of gee, willikers, there was a terrible mistake I made just then.
Ms. PRICE: Right, but I'm talking about 30 years ago.
CONAN: Thirty years ago?
Ms. PRICE: You know, stuff from the last 30 years of my life, and that can make you crazy.
CONAN: We'll find out what the science has been able to tell Jill Price and more about what her extraordinary memory delivers to her life and her dreams. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. We're talking about a book called "The Woman Who Can't Forget."
You can also check out our blog. Read what other listeners have to say at npr.org/blogofthenation. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For most of us, memories - good or bad - fade over time. If you've ever lamented that slow fade, consider Jill Price. Her unique memory gives her continuous, automatic recall of her entire life with encyclopedic clarity, and she has to take the bad with the good, every small victory along with every defeat.
We're talking with Jill Price about her book this hour. It's called, "The Woman Who Can't Forget." You can read more about her experiences living with an extraordinary memory in an excerpt at our Web site at npr.org/talk.
We're also joined by one of the neurobiologists working with her, James McGaugh. If you'd like to speak with him, gives us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And here's an email question from Joel in San Francisco. "Why keep a diary if you have total recall?"
Ms. PRICE: People have asked me that before, and I thought about it because I need to have things documented. Just because it's in my head, it needs to be documented. And once I write everything down it just kind of calms it down. It's always in my brain but it's not swirling in my head.
CONAN: And you also keep a large collection of mementos, not just the memories, but physical objects.
Ms. PRICE: Mm hmm. I still have the first gift that was given to me at my birth. I have all of my dolls and stuffed animals, stuff from school. I mean, everything's put away in storage, but, yeah, I do keep everything pretty much.
CONAN: And again, why?
Ms. PRICE: I don't know. I don't know. That's just the way it's always been.
CONAN: James McGaugh, how unusual is this type of memory?
Dr. McGAUGH: Well, Jill Price is the first documented case of this strong autobiographical memory, but since we published our article reporting on her memory in 2006, we've had quite a few people come forward to either claim that they have the same kind of memory or that they know someone who does. And we have received, I would say, perhaps as many as 200 or more such messages.
We have boiled those down a little bit, and we think that we may have up to, let's say, two dozen people who very likely have a memory that is something like this. We've only studied two other people in some detail and so we can't be sure about the others. But we think it is just highly unusual, extremely rare, but it does happen, and we think we will find it in other individuals, as well.
CONAN: And what lessons do you think you could learn from Jill Price and others like her?
Dr. McGAUGH: Well, as you said earlier, what we do as humans is forget. That's something that we are very good at. And as someone who has researched memory, literally all of my life, we're very interested in individuals who have very powerful, strong memories, who can remember the events of the day.
Let me just say what this memory is like. Her memory is like your memory and my memory of yesterday. That is, think about it. You can ruminate about what you did yesterday, you can go through the events and so on. You don't have every detail. You don't remember the pressure on your left foot when you put a shoe on, but you do remember what you did during the sequence of the day and the important things that happened.
Well, that's what she is able to do not only for yesterday, as you and I can do, but she can do for the week before and the month before and the year before. If we could find out what enables her brain to do that, we will have opened a new chapter on brain and memory. So there is a possibility that we will, by working on this, have discovered something new and important about how brains work, and that's the basis of my interest in understanding Jill's extraordinary memory.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Patrice. Patrice with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
PATRICE (Caller): Yes, hello, thank you. I was really interested in whether or not you are able to forgive because I actually teach forgiveness, a process, anyway, and part of that is detaching emotionally from the pain and processing that, and I wonder if you're ever able to detach enough for - are you able to forgive?
Ms. PRICE: I am. I do. And that's because I want to keep my friends. I mean, I've had to figure out a way to kind of rise above the things that have happened. When I remember certain things, the pain is still there but I can't act on it or I would have no friends.
PATRICE: All right. Thank you. It just seems like it would be awfully difficult to have the pain, and then still be able to overcome...
Ms. PRICE: It is. And it's taken a long time to, kind of, deal with that, but eventually you have to, I have to rise about it.
PATRICE: I applaud you for that. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Patrice. Let's see if we can go now to Wren(ph). Wren with us from Orchard Park, New York.
WREN (Caller): Hi. I have a two-part question. I'm wondering if your recall of events is only of your consciousness, or can you also recall your dreams? And as a followup to that, I am a nurse anesthetist and I'm curious if you've ever been anesthetized and if you had problems with recall during the surgery?
Ms. PRICE: I did have surgery when I was 17, and, no, it never affected me. What was the first question?
WREN: If you can recall your dreams, as well?
Ms. PRICE: Yes, I do. And I have a hard time sleeping, but when I do sleep my dreams are very crazy and I can recall them. And in fact, there are about three or four dreams from my childhood that I still remember very vividly.
WREN: Interesting. Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Wren. And let's go now to Juan. Juan is with us from San Francisco.
JUAN (Caller): Hi. Actually, while I was waiting, the professor touched on this. I was wondering if it has been determined if the guest's brain, the way that memories are formed, if her brain different from ours and if we could learn about how to learn in the education system, if that could be used to learn in a more efficient way. And also, are her memories permanent if there is an emotional attachment to them?
CONAN: Let's hear from James McGaugh on that.
Dr. McGAUGH: Well, I'll take them in reverse order. Her emotional memories are pretty permanent, and so that's one of the sources of her concern. If they are the bad memories, they're pretty strongly embedded.
Secondly, I don't know what we can learn from this which would be useful for education, but it's something to think about for the future. The question would be what could we do to make better use of our brain so that we could remember better?
The irony of this is that Jill tells us that she never used this talent in education. That is, it didn't help her in school, according to her claims, but she can speak to that.
Thirdly, we have obtained images, MRI images of the brains of Jill and two other people. Jill's have been analyzed and the other two are in the process of being analyzed, and our initial effort is to understand if there is a difference in the structure of the brain of people who have this extraordinary talent in comparison with the subjects of the same age and so on who don't have it. So we're looking into that very intensively at the present time.
CONAN: Juan, thanks very much for the call.
JUAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go to Pam. And Pam is with us from Glendale, Arizona.
PAM (Caller): Oh, hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
PAM: Let me just pull over here. OK. I think this is very interesting, and my question is, OK, there was this movie with Bill Murray called "Groundhog Day" where he kept reliving the same day over and over again, and he could go through and correct himself and learn French and dah dah dah dah dah dah.
Now when she has a situation occur, she can flip through her mental notes and go, well, this is what happened to me last time. If I do it this way, then I can correct the situation. That just seems like it would be such a great help.
CONAN: Is that the way the memory works, Jill Price?
Ms. PRICE: No, it's not like that at all. No.
PAM: Well, that's too bad. That would be - that would keep you from repeating the same mistake over and over again.
CONAN: Well, she'd have to move to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania then.
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PAM: Probably. And on Groundhog Day, too.
CONAN: OK. Big snow storm, as I remember, the day after. But anyway, Pam, thank very much for the call.
PAM: Thank you very much.
CONAN: But she raises another point, Jill Price, and that is the impulse that you must have when family or friends say, oh, don't you remember back in the, you know, the clubhouse back in - what was it, 1967, and - or that's a little before your time, maybe 1987 - when such and such happened, and you know it isn't what happened.
Ms. PRICE: That happens all the time. That happens all the time. And so in a sweet way, I have to remind people that this is the way it happened and not the way they remember it happening.
CONAN: I also - a couple of years ago, when you first - when the paper was first published that James McGaugh wrote you first appeared on National Public Radio in an interview with Michelle Trudeau that was broadcast on "Morning Edition." At that time, you were a research subject and just went by the initials AJ, as a lot of - to preserve anonymity. And we can understand your impulse to go seek the best scientific advice to alleviate this problem, or at least understand this problem and also make a contribution to our understanding of how memory works and how our brains work. Why did you decide to go public, as it were, and disclose your identity?
Ms. PRICE: For that exact reason. Because I'm hoping that people who read my book who feel the same way I do will come forward and call the doctors and that there could be more people studied than just myself. And hopefully that they could find something that would help other people.
Because people are always telling me, oh, this must be a gift and, you know, a gift and a burden, and it's - for me it's more of a burden, I guess this is my life's burden. And I'm hoping that - and one day if this helps other people, that will - that's when it'll be a gift for me.
CONAN: On the other hand, since you became public, there must be a lot of people who were unaware of this condition of yours who now are aware of it. Do you become like a parlor trick at parties and that sort of thing? Does people shouting out dates or news events and expecting you to reel off the events of the day?
Ms. PRICE: That's kind of always been the way it has - I mean, people in my life have always known about this, so if you talk to me and you don't know about this, you get an understanding there is something different about me. I - people don't throw dates at me all the time, but I, you know, if a date comes up and I'll remember what we were doing, I'll pick up the phone and call up a friend of mine and say, do you remember 11 years ago we were doing this or this? And usually they don't remember, but - and I've had friends call me back and tell me that I'm making their memory stronger.
CONAN: I wonder, does it astound you sometimes that the rest of us can't remember things that...
Ms. PRICE: Yes. Yes.
CONAN: That are so blindingly obvious to you?
Ms. PRICE: Yes. I was asking my mom about her birthday in 1985 and she could not remember it. And I asked her, do you remember any of your birthdays, and not really. And I could tell you what I was doing on every single one of my birthdays since I was nine years old, eight years old. What day it fell on, what was going on, so it is kind of weird when I hear that people don't remember these kinds of things. Because I would just expect it.
Dr. MCGAUGH: Could I make a comment here?
CONAN: Go ahead.
Dr. MCGAUGH: I asked Jill on one occasion to tell me all of the times that we had met, what were the dates and the days of the week. And she not only told me of each and every one, but she also told me events that were occurring at or about that time. I don't know, Jill, do you still remember those dates?
Ms. PRICE: In the summer of 2000?
Dr. MCGAUGH: What are all the dates that you and I have met?
Ms. PRICE: Ah. Well, we met, we spoke, you answered my email on June 8th, 2000. We spoke on June 12th. We met on June 24th. We met again on - which was a Saturday. We met again on the 8th of July, the 15th of July. I met with Dr. Parker on the 23rd of July. We met again on the 19th of August and then again on the 24th of February 2001. And then for two years I didn't see them, and I saw them again on February 28th, 2003.
CONAN: And now you're talking on the radio on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Adam, Adam's with us from Atchison, in Kansas.
ADAM (Caller): Yes, thank you very much. Ms. Price, first of all I have to say I'm delighted to follow up on your case. I'm a clinical psychologist. I've been playing your interviews with Ms. Trudeau for two years in my general psychology classes and we talk about your case often.
The thing that stands out to me the most, Ms. Price, even as you spoke about it two years ago, is the issue of the intense emotionality of these memories. And what I'm fascinated by - emotions is the area I research the most as a psychologist. What I'm fascinated by is the disinhibition, the overwhelming quality of the - the emotional flooding that comes along with these memories. And maybe, Dr. McGaugh, you can address this, too. Have you looked into the possibility this maybe some sort of limbic system epilepsy, or some other sort of limbic system dysfunction that's contributing to the normal, natural impairment in our ability to remember all of these things?
Dr. MCGAUGH: Well, let me comment. My special field happens to be limbic influences on emotional arousal and memory.
Dr. MCGAUGH: And so that was our first hypothesis, that we would look at the amygdala. And we haven't found any evidence of either amygdala or hippocampal involvement in this. But it's certainly something we're going to have to look a lot more at in the future. But there has to be some reason why the emotional character of her memories play such a predominant role.
ADAM: I agree. I'm fascinated. I'll certainly follow the case. And Ms. Price, I feel terrible that you have to deal with both the burdens and the gift side of all of this.
Ms. PRICE: Thank you.
ADAM: But thank you for coming forward and sharing all of this with us.
Ms. PRICE: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Adam. And let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Candice. Candice with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
CANDICE (Caller): Yes. I'm a retired teacher of art, and I've also been a professor, part time, in art in Charlotte. And this is unbelievable. I thought I was the only person out there that had this problem. And I've gone through a very, very tragic divorce where - and I've also, as the oldest of 10, father killed in a car accident, raised my brothers and sisters. And I can recall every single moment, every single event, and doctors can't find anything wrong with me.
And I'm highly emotional. I have the same problem that this young lady has. I really actually stay away from people. I avoid people because I have such recall. I can - I mean, the recall is so profound until it's absolutely frightening. I was an outstanding young educator for the state of North Carolina...
CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off. We're just running out of time here. James McGaugh, she's one of half-a-dozen callers who've said that they have similar kinds of memory as Jill Price. Any advice for them as to where to go, where they might get help?
Dr. MCGAUGH: Well, they can - if they want to become subjects in our studies, they can send us an email and we can find out whether or not they are appropriate for further study. I have to tell you, we have received hundreds of emails and telephone calls. So it's not as though we're going to jump on this immediately. We have a huge backlog of people who either claim to have a strong memory like that of Jill Price's or know someone who does. This is not an isolated event.
CONAN: And what's the email address?
Dr. MCGAUGH: email@example.com.
CONAN: And we'll copy that and put it on our Web site, so if you've missed it you can get it in - oh, about an hour or so at npr.org/talk. James McGaugh, thank you very much for your time today.
Dr. MCGAUGH: Thank you.
CONAN: And Jill Price - well, I guess this is an unforgettable experience. I'm sorry for the joke. Thank you so much.
Ms. PRICE: Thank you.
CONAN: This is NPR News.