Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney
oh dear lord…
And there goes feminism out the window.
20 August 2012 by Kayt Sukel
Some people can recall what happened on almost every day of their lives. Unlocking their secrets could shed light on the way all our memories work
IT WAS an email that memory researcher James McGaugh found hard to believe. The sender, a 34-year-old housewife named Jill Price, was claiming that she could recall key events on any date back to when she was about 12, as well as what she herself had done each day.
“Some people call me the human calendar,” she wrote, “while others run out of the room in fear. But the one reaction I get from everyone who finds out about this ‘gift’ is amazement. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!”
McGaugh invited Price to his lab, making sure he had to hand a copy of 20th Century Day by Day, a book that lists important events by date. He opened the book to random pages and asked Price what had happened on those days. “Whether it was a plane crash or some elections or a movie star doing an outrageous thing, she was dead on,” he recalls. “Time and time again.”
That was in June 2000. McGaugh’s group has worked closely with Price ever since, and has discovered she is one of a select few with similar abilities. These individuals are neither autistic savants nor masters of mnemonic-based tricks of recall, yet they can remember key events from almost every day of their lives. Learning more about their abilities and how their brains are wired should lead to insights into the nature of human memory.
Intrigued by McGaugh’s findings, I arranged to visit his lab at the University of California, Irvine, to find out how these people live with such unusual abilities - and what it is like for the researchers working with them. “It never ceases to amaze me,” says McGaugh’s colleague, Aurora LePort. “Some of them can remember every day you give them.” She says studying people whose powers of recall seem to be enhanced, rather than impaired, offers us a new tool to explore memory.
It is certainly fair to say that most of our knowledge of memory derives from looking at memory loss. The classic case is that of Henry Molaison (better known as “HM”), who had surgery nearly 60 years ago to treat severe epilepsy. In a misguided attempt to remove the source of the seizures, several parts of the brain were cut out, including both hippocampi, curled up ridges on either side of the brain.
For HM, the consequences were catastrophic. Although he could still recall his early life, he was no longer able to lay down memories of things that happened to him after the surgery. Every day, the researchers studying his condition had to introduce themselves anew. Intriguingly, though, he could perform tasks that used short-term memory, like retaining a phone number for a few minutes.
Thanks to HM and many other people with neurological problems caused by head injuries and strokes, we now know that there are different kinds of remembering. Our short-term memories last up to about a minute, unless they are reinforced, or “rehearsed” through further repetition. While much about the neuroscience of memory remains mysterious, our hippocampi seem to be involved in turning these fleeting impressions into long-term memories, which are thought to be stored in the temporal lobes on either side of the brain.
Long-term memories can be subdivided into semantic ones to do with concepts, such as the fact that London is the UK capital, and autobiographical memories, about everyday events that we experience. Price has no special abilities with regard to her short-term or semantic memory, but when it comes to autobiographical memory, her scores are off the chart.