Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Woman Who Can't Forget and the Man Who Can't Remember

It's a Monday afternoon in November, and I'm driving down Ventura Boulevard with Jill Price, the woman who can't forget. Price, who is 43, has spent most of her life here in Los Angeles, and she remembers everything. In the space of two minutes, she tells me about the former motel lodge with a bear in front, the Courtyard hotel that used to be a Hilton, and a bowling alley—since replaced by a Marshalls—where a Nicolas Cage film was shot.

All this comes pouring out so fast, I wonder aloud whether Price has had too much coffee. She laughs, says no, pulls slightly at her blond hair, and starts up again. Right over there, she says, is a car wash: "I was talking to the guy there last summer, and I was telling him about the first time I ever went to the car wash—on August 30, 1978. And he was freaking out."

Soon, Price, generally a gentle soul, has moved on to a rant about a TV program she just saw: "It was about an event that happened in 2002. So they kept going back to Saturday, June 19, 2002. Well, June 19, 2002, was not a Saturday! It was a Wednesday. It was pissing me off." Diane Sawyer interviews Jill Price on ABC News. I first saw Price last May in a YouTube clip of her on 20/20. Diane Sawyer asks Price, an avid television viewer, to identify certain significant dates in broadcast history. When did CBS air the "Who shot JR?" episode of Dallas? When was All in the Family's baby episode shown? And so on. Price nails every question.

She not only gives the date for the final episode of MASH but describes the weather that day. The most remarkable moment comes when Sawyer asks Price when Princess Grace died. She immediately answers, "September 14, 1982—that was the first day I started 12th grade." For once, it seems that the memory lady has blown it. Sawyer laughs nervously and tries gently to right her guest: "September 10, 1982." Price misunderstands, thinking she's being prompted to identify another event—the possibility that she's being corrected apparently doesn't occur to her.

No, Sawyer says, she has made a mistake; according to the book that 20/20's producers were using as a source, Princess Grace died on September 10. Price stands her ground, and not 60 seconds later, a producer breaks in: "The book is wrong." Price is right after all! Until recently, no one had ever heard of Jill Price. Her friends and family knew her memory was remarkable, but nobody in the scientific community did.

Her road to stardom started in June 2000 (Monday, June 5, to be exact), when she stumbled upon a Web page for James McGaugh, a UC Irvine neuroscientist who specializes in learning and memory, and decided to send him an email describing her unusual ability to recall the past. McGaugh wrote back 90 minutes later. He tells me he was skeptical at first, but it didn't take long for him to become convinced that Price was something special; he soon introduced her to two of his collaborators, Larry Cahill and Elizabeth Parker. The three researchers interviewed Price many times over the next five years, but they kept the story to themselves.

Finally, McGaugh and company were ready to share what they had found. In February 2006, their article, "A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering," appeared in the journal Neurocase. Shortly thereafter, the UC Irvine press office peddled the story to The Orange County Register—and Price's world was turned upside down. The newspaper article, which identified her only as "AJ," appeared on March 13, 2006.

Within hours, UC Irvine was besieged with inquiries. Four weeks later, the story went national: Price was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition (still under the AJ pseudonym). An editor at Free Press eventually tracked her down, and a book deal followed; Price would tell her own story, this time under her own name.

The media played along, withholding further news on the woman who couldn't forget until the book's release. Since then, Price has been on a nonstop media junket. Diane Sawyer actually had her on twice in one day (on Good Morning America and 20/20). By the time I met Price, she had been interviewed by Oprah and had been featured in every major newspaper from USA Today to The Wall Street Journal. Often the pieces focused on the pain she felt because of her inability to forget difficult moments.

As I followed Price's story, I was fascinated but doubtful. I am a cognitive psychologist, and to me something didn't smell right. Everyone seems to have an uncle or cousin with "photographic" memory, but damned if they can actually give you a phone number to reach that person. The only serious scientific paper documenting photographic memory was published nearly 40 years ago, and that study has never been replicated. Price, however, is eminently real. I spent the better part of two days with her, meeting her friends and family and watching her at the office. At the end, I can honestly say that in my decade as a professor of psychology, I've never encountered anyone remotely like Jill Price.

Ordinary human memory is a mess. Most of us can recall the major events in our lives, but the memory of Homo sapiens pales when compared with your average laptop. It takes us far longer to store data (you might have to hear a phone number five to 10 times before you can repeat it); it's easy for us to forget things we've learned (try reciting anything from your sophomore history class); and it's sometimes hard to dislodge outdated information (St. Petersburg will always remain Leningrad to me). Worse, our memories are vulnerable to contamination and distortion. Lawyers can readily fool us with suggestive questions; false memories can easily be implanted. The fundamental problem is the seemingly haphazard fashion in which our memories are organized. On a computer, every single bit of information is stored at a specific location, from which it can always be retrieved. Human recall is hit or miss.

Neuroscientific research tells us that our brains don't use a fixed-address system, and memories tend to overlap, combine, and disappear for reasons no one yet understands. The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time? If I try to summon that experience, I am likely to wind up with a blur—a half dozen indistinct recollections. And no brain-scan technology will help me bring it into better focus. So when I hear about Price's feats, my mind boggles.

From the perspective of evolution, finding a human being with memory that works with the precision of a computer would be like finding someone with bones made of steel. The type of memory system we have—in technical terms, context-dependent rather than location-addressable—has been around for several hundred million years. The existence of a human brain that works completely differently is astronomically unlikely.

The article goes on to explain that her abilities result from a constant obsession with and rehearsal of her past. She is always taking notes. Still amazing, but she doesn't have major brain differences.

... The difference is that she scans her past relentlessly. Every time we think about something, and especially how it connects to something else, we get better at remembering it—a phenomenon that psychologists call elaborative encoding. Price has spent her whole life ruminating on the past, constructing timelines and lists, and contemplating the connections between one February 19 and the next. Dates and memories are her constant companions, and as a result she's really good at remembering her past. End of story.

Here is another person with an unusual memory:
Clive Wearing (born 1938) is a British musicologist, conductor, and keyboardist suffering from an acute and long lasting case of anterograde amnesia. Specifically, this means he lacks the ability to form new memories, dubbed the "memento" syndrome by laypeople and the media, after a film of the same name based on the subject. ... On March 29, 1985, Wearing, then an acknowledged expert in early music at the height of his career with BBC Radio 3, contracted a virus which normally causes only cold sores, but in Wearing's case attacked the brain (Herpes simplex encephalitis). Since this point, he has been unable to process new memories. He has also been unable to control emotions and associated memories well.

Despite having retrograde as well as anterograde amnesia, and thus only a moment-to-moment consciousness, Wearing still recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir--all this despite having no recollection of having received a musical education. This is because his cerebellum, responsible for the maintenance of procedural memory, was not damaged by the virus. As soon as the music stops, however, Wearing forgets that he has just played and starts shaking spasmodically. These jerkings are physical signs of an inability to control his emotions, stemming from the damage to his inferior frontal lobe. His brain is still trying to fire information in the form of action potentials to neurostructures that no longer exist. The resulting encephalic electrical disturbance leads to fits.

In a diary provided by his caretakers, Clive was encouraged to record his thoughts. Page after page is filled with entries similar to the following:
8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

Earlier entries are usually crossed out, since he forgets having made an entry within minutes and dismisses the writings--he doesn't know how the entries were made or by whom, although he does recognize his own writing.[1] Wishing to record the important life event of "waking up for the first time", he still writes diary entries as of 2007, more than two decades after he started them.

Wearing can learn new practices and even a very few facts--not from episodic memory or encoding, but by acquiring new procedural memories through repetition. For example, having watched a certain video recording multiple times on successive days, he never had any memory of ever seeing the video or knowing the contents, but he was able to anticipate certain parts of the content without remembering how he learned them.[2]

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