The "human calendar."
That's what some people call the woman who contacted UC Irvine neurobiologist Jim McGaugh six years ago and said, "I have a problem. I remember too much."
She wasn't exaggerating. McGaugh and fellow UCI researchers Larry Cahill and Elizabeth Parker have been studying the extraordinary case of a person who has "nonstop, uncontrollable and automatic" memory of her personal history and countless public events.
If you randomly pick a date from the past 25 years and ask her about it, she'll usually provide elaborate, verifiable details about what happened to her that day and if there were any significant news events on topics that interested her. She usually also recalls what day of the week it was and what the weather was like.
The 40-year-old woman, who was given the code name AJ to protect her privacy, is so unusual that UCI coined a name for her condition in a recent issue of the journal Neurocase: hyperthymestic syndrome.
"I have studied learning and memory for over 50 years, and I had never read of or even heard about a person who has a comparable ability to remember," McGaugh said. "However, we do not know whether she is unique or whether there may be others with comparable remembering ability who have not as yet been identified."
McGaugh answered dozens of questions about AJ last week. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: How would you describe AJ's autobiographical memory?
A: Her recollections are quick and seem to be automatic. When asked how she knows an answer, she says, sometimes with frustration or impatience, that she "just knows." She says she can see the event in her mind and relive it, like she's watching a movie. When asked about a particular day, she immediately gives the day of the week it fell on and describes some activity she engaged in, such as taking an exam, having lunch with a particular friend. She gives an inordinate number of details and is deliberate and calm as she recalls the sequence of events.
Q: AJ says she remembers too much. Is this a problem?
A: Her memories seem just to come pouring out, and she can't turn off the flow. She's sometimes forced to remember things that she doesn't want to think about. But she doesn't want to lose this capability because she enjoys it. It's a talent that she can talk about with friends.
Q: How have you confirmed the accuracy of her answers?
A: The significant public events are a matter of record; we fact-checked. We are able to check her personal experiences against a diary she kept from the age of 10 to 34. And her mother verified some things. She doesn't guess. On the rare occasions that she does not recall an event, she simply says that she does not remember.
Q: You put AJ through neuropsychological testing. What did that involve?
A:She was given many standardized psychological tests that assess various mental capabilities. She was asked to remember meaningful and meaningless information, visual data, things she did or did not say. She performed quite well. In some cases, she was perfect. These tests are usually given to people who might have an impairment.
Q: Your Neurocase paper says some people have "superior memories." What does that mean, and does that sum up AJ's "gift"?
A: Some people have trained themselves exceptionally well to remember specific kinds of information, such as a string of digits presented only once. Other individuals (only two published cases) appear to have the capacity to remember novel information, such as rows and columns of numbers that were presented only once, and remember them for a long time. AJ's ability is different; she has extraordinarily strong memory of daily personal experiences as well as public events. The odd thing is she hated studying history. And she's not especially good at rote memorization.
Q: Do you find that odd?
A:Yes. That is one reason we've spent dozens of hours over many years studying her.
Q: Have you examined the anatomy of her brain?
A:Not yet. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to study her because she's so unique. But we plan to do an MRI of her brain, probably within the next six months.
Q: At times, AJ has struggled with depression and has taken antidepressants. Is it possible the drugs affected her memory?
A:We do not know, but we think it unlikely. Antidepressant drugs are more likely to impair memory.
Q: Do you consider AJ's special abilities to be a gift or a burden?
A: From our view, it would appear to be an ability of considerable value. She does not generally regard it as such. However, although it clearly bothers her to be remembering a myriad of details on a routine basis, she says that she would not like to lose this ability.
Q: Is there anything in particular she remembered that just amazed you?
A:Yes. She readily and accurately recalled the specific dates, and days of the week, of every day she spent with us for the many interviews (over almost 6 years), as well as the weather on each day and many details occurring at the times of the interviews.
Q: With a memory like this, would AJ do well on the TV program "Jeopardy"?
A:Yes, but only on topics that interest her. She could probably make a lot of money.