"Where did the years go?"
Middle-age people often ask that plaintive question as time seems to accelerate, the days blur together, and children grow up in a flash.
But it's not a question 42-year-old Jill Price ever asks, because she can recall in vivid detail every day of her life since age 14, and many earlier days, too.
'The Woman Who Can't Forget' (Free Press), her new book with writer Bart Davis, tells the story of the first person ever confirmed by scientists to have such a superior autobiographical memory. She was studied by memory experts at University of California-Irvine for six years before they reported the feats of "AJ" in an esoteric professional journal in 2006.
Now "AJ" has decided to reveal her identity. She lives in suburban Los Angeles and works as the administrator of a religious school. ...
Two other "bona fides" came forward after the journal report in Neurocase, says James McGaugh, the neuroscientist contacted by Price eight years ago because she was bewildered and tormented by her non-stop barrage of memories.
McGaugh, with colleagues Elizabeth Parker and Larry Cahill, gave Price a battery of memory and cognitive tests. She'd kept a diary from ages 10 to 34, so the researchers could verify Price's recollections with pages randomly selected from 1,460 diary days, he says.
But that wasn't all. You could give her a date, "and within seconds she'd tell you what day of the week it was, not only what she did but other key events of the day," McGaugh says. Aug. 16, 1977? A Tuesday, Elvis died. May 18, 1980? A Sunday, when Mount St. Helens erupted. She also quickly could come up with the day and date of noted events: the start of the Gulf War, Rodney King's beating, Princess Diana's death (Aug. 30 or 31, 1997, depending on France or U.S. time, she told McGaugh).
I probably could have placed Elvis, Mount St. Helens, and Princess Di within two days. Those aren't so tough. I've always found dates pretty easy to remember because they fit into long chains of cause and effect, so they aren't very arbitrary.
One possible clue to Price's condition is that she scored poorly on abstract reasoning; it was hard to grasp concepts and see analogies.
"Most of us extract generalities. We get the gist of things, so we can navigate in similar situations," Levine says. "But if you have trouble seeing generalities, every instance becomes a unique instance, interesting in its own light."
It's like focusing extra-hard on individual trees but not seeing the forest. Because she's swamped with details, Price may find it easy to store and retrieve specific memories but hard to see the bigger picture, he speculates.
This fits with what Jorge Luis Borges speculated in his famous 1942 short story "Funes the Memorious," a bittersweet story of a boy who remembers everything and can abstract nothing:
On the other hand:
He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. …
The voice of Funes, out of the darkness, continued. He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone before twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me. …
He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). …
Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
But one of the other two subjects, Brad Williams, 51, of La Crosse, Wis., skipped a grade in elementary school and won his state's spelling bee. Williams hasn't had the thorough neuropsychological testing yet that Price had, so his abstract and rote memorizing abilities aren't known, but he says school never gave him any trouble.
A radio reporter for WIZM-AM in La Crosse, Williams got intensive testing for autobiographical memories in 2006 by McGaugh's team and was found to be in the same league as Price. But he's different from her in many ways.
"The memories surface on their own, but I also can submerge them," he says.
While Price says her memories control her, and they tilt toward the negative, "it's no big deal in my life, and bad memories don't come up very often," Williams says.
Conversations with Price and Williams are like experiencing day and night. Her recollections are suffused with sorrow; he's an inveterate wise-cracker who views the world through a light prism. In addition to his radio job, Williams performs with an improv comedy group. He says he has had super-detailed life memories "for as long as I can remember" and thinks it helps with reporting.
By the way, if you haven't read a Borges story, "Funes" is as good as any. They resemble what science-fiction would be like if it was written by philosophers instead of engineers. They're quite repetitious, so you don't need to read more than the best 10 or 12.