May 13, 2008

"Jill the Memorious"

From USA Today, Marilyn Elias's "Her Unmatched Memory a Blessing, Curse:"

"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:

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.

On the other hand:
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.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

12 comments:

Topiary Utopia said...

"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."

Gene Wolfe is a science fiction writer profoundly influenced by Borges (and Nabokov). Memory is a recurrent theme in his works, which feature protagonists with eidetic memory (The Book of the New Sun), with a lack of memory (Soldier of the Mist), and so on.

He also is a engineer. His second major contribution to Western Civilization is having designed the machine that makes Pringles potato chips.

Born Again Democrat said...

I wonder, doesn't this offer a clue to the neurological basis of memory -- that it takes up certain spaces in the brain (as opposed to being more generally spread out) and that an over-developed memory can impinge on certain, well-defined (and probably spatially identifiable) brain areas? Probably certain neurons, or closely bunched bundles of neurons (or of glial ceels for that matter), are responsible for memory, as opposed to the idea, for instance, that memories are stored within the interior chemistry of neurons.

I dunno. Just a thought.

SKT said...

I came across that story as well, and like you I wasn't terribly impressed. It's not a quite a hoax. There's definitely something there, but it's pretty lame overall.

David said...

Bet she's a great multi-tasker. Every task a new adventure, with no worrying implications, no hooks of thought digging into the brain.

It's when one connects one thing to another that he's in trouble with his fellow men (boss, wife, enforcers of orthodoxy, deadlines). He is stirring up trouble, breaking the gestalt and imposing one of his own. Folks don't like that. You're supposed to "go along."

A world bred for the memorious and presumably diminishing the population of reasoners, would be almost ideal for the powerful. "Almost" because, after all, the subjects will still remember things, in who knows what dangerous associative sequences...? Safer to go for universal lobotomy.

I have to go and watch TV now.

Bill said...

If the memories bother her too much, she can always pick up a bottle of Jim Beam down at the local liquor store and get to work rinsing them from her brain.

Yes, a strange memory can be a difficult thing, but it can also be fun. Once I met a girl, and after talking to her for a while she told me she liked the song "Southern Cross." I then asked her whether she'd spent a summer digging latrines in Guatemala. Her jaw dropped.

I could remember her from a radio request from years before where I'd heard her ask for "Southern Cross" because she used to listen to it while on a charity mission to Guatemala, where she dug latrines. All it took to ring a bell was the voice and the mention of the song. She refused to believe that I could have remembered her from that, insisting that I must have heard about her trip from someone else. She was highly suspicious of me thereafter.

Although those kinds of tricks can be amusing, I don't usually like having to deal with too many memories. I try to erase them, and have had some success, but they come back if I ease up. They haunt you in a way, coming back while you're trying to sleep or just relax and have a good time. When they're tied to emotional experiences they can cause sudden mood swings. It becomes tiresome after a while.

I won the regional spelling bee at 12, and would have advanced to state if I hadn't taken a trip at the time. I never studied for it.

My father has the same memory. He also collects stuff -- electronics in his case. My sister has some of the same tendencies. We're Prices. I wonder whether Price is Jill's maiden name?

MPorcius said...

Gene Wolfe is my favorite writer, so I am always ready to give him a plug. If you have not tried Wolfe yet, and don't want to start one of the long epics like the New Sun books or the Soldier books, I recommend the short story "The Doctor of Death Island," about a man who wakes up to find himself immortal, but locked in a prison.

Anonymous said...

Alas, memory is not cool. Loss of memory is cool.

Consider, Matt Damon makes a movie based on amnesia and becomes a first cabin movie star. His unindicted co-conspirator, Ben Affleck, counters with his own amnesia movie. It didn't advance his career that much but others continue to try.

There are a at least two Hollywood movies a year based on the amnesia plot premise. Yet no one knows anyone who actually has or had amnesia.

Except me of course. I ran my motorcycle into the side of Kezar Stadium which messed up my short term memory of the event. I lost about a half hour. I wonder if I was recruited by the KGB while I was out?

James Kabala said...

It might be the fault of McGaugh and Price's other intermediaries that such obvious dates were chosen as displays of her affliction rather than more obscure dates. I read an article not too long ago about another man who claimed to have this condition (it might even have been this Williams guy), and his stories were of obscure dates. Maybe Price's book will have more convincing examples.

Bill: Great story.

TGGP said...

Anonymous, though we didn't use term "amnesia", Hopefully Anonymous and I had a discussion on experiences similar to your's here.

C. Van Carter said...

Remember the TV show Taxi? I think the red-haired broad from that show has an eidetic memory.

beowulf said...

Hmm, this article reminded me (without Googling) of the following:

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Oscar Wilde

'There are two kinds of presidents, the fox who knows many small things and the hedgehog who knows one great thing.'
paraphrase of James MacGregor Burns

'The mind is like an attic with limited storage space. I choose to retain only those facts worth remembering.'
paraphrase of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

'Just as the calculator diminished the economic value of the person who can quickly work figures in their head; the Internet, Google specifically, has diminished the value of a person who can easily remember random and obscure facts.'

I forget who made this last point, though it sounds like something James Fallows would say.

poor richard said...

Part of American cheery optimism is about absence of memory. Slavery, Indian wars, ho hum. Gee, this new reality TV show is funny.

On the other end of the spectrum is something like Judaism, which is based on memory, memory, memory. Every little slight? It goes down in the book.

Consider: most Americans think the 1800's is ancient history, impossibly long ago and irrelevant. Contrast: Jews celebrate their liberation from the Pharaoh and their exile in Babylon.

So much of what people criticize about the American life is its "rootlessness." Meaning, lack of memory. Everything is treated as brand spanking new and surprising. Our culture has erected pretty remarkable barriers to prevent memory formation. That's the real folly of "hedonism." It is a failure of mind and failure of heart.