Hyperthymesia: One Superpower You Wish You Didn’t Have

If you ever get to meet Jill Price aka “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” in person, you might end up a little disappointed. She is by far no Raymond Babbitt. Her memory, though astonishing, does not extend to the feat of memorising binary codes or reciting Tolstoy’s War and Peace verbatim. Indeed, for a middle-aged woman working as a school administrator in Los Angeles, she looks and sounds rather unremarkable. That is, until you pick any date between today and the 1970s, and she tells you exactly what she was doing that day, as if she was reading a diary.

To every day, there is a story attached. Jill associates dates with certain personal events and remembers these events as if they had happened yesterday. This is not so much unlike how, in our mind, we subconsciously decide to preserve certain experiences because of their personal significance to us. In Jill’s case, however, the sheer volume and detail of her memory bank is far beyond that of an average human being. She does not need to think of her answers or calculate them on a mental calendar as people suffering from autism do. She just knows.

“Whenever I see a date flash on the television, I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was and what I was doing”, Jill Price writes in an e-mail to James McGaugh, a neurobiologist working at the University of California. “It is non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.”

Jill Price has seen this incredible ability develop since the age of 14. To many of her happy childhood memories, she retreats to find solace from the inanity of adulthood. But as life goes, there are also many terrible memories, such as the sudden death of her husband after a mere two years of marriage; and she finds herself rewinding these over and over again in the ‘split-screen’ that is her mind. On the 8th June, 2000, out of sheer anguish and desperation, she decided to consult James McGaugh.

Six years later, Dr McGaugh’s study on the exceptional case of “AJ” (Jill’s alias until she decided to disclose her identity with the release of her own book, The Woman Who Can’t Forget) was published in an issue of Neurocase. He aptly named her condition ‘Hyperthymesic syndrome’, or ‘Hyperthymesia’ from the Greek word for memory, “thymesia”. Following the bombastic media furore surrounding the release of McGaugh’s study, many others claiming to suffer from this syndrome started to step forward. The only genuine cases that have been identified so far are Brad Williams, a Wisconsin radio presenter, and Rick Baron, a man from Ohio.

What all of these people seem to have in common is the fact that they are, never mind their superior memory, relatively normal. Apart from the odd obsessive-compulsive habit, none of them appear to share the idiosyncrasies of savants and autism sufferers. Furthermore, their ability is restricted to an autobiographical level; they recall personal experiences with astounding accuracy, but are not as skilled at remembering random information that they are instructed to regurgitate. In high school, their academic performances were mediocre at most.

As of now, work on Jill Price is still in progress. A recent MRI scan of her brain uncovered both an abnormally large caudate nuclei and a portion of the temporal lobe, which are linked with automatic habits and fact retention respectively. Still, McGaugh’s team cannot make head nor tail of these scans and continues to speculate as to the origin of her uncontrollable skill. Once they do uncover this mystical well of memories that none of us appear to have access to, neurobiologists might finally be able to take that momentous leap forward in understanding Alzheimer’s disease. For now, Jill’s life continues, trapped in both the past and the present…

Eric John

One Comment
  • john lawrence
    30 November 2011 at 15:06
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    Hi I too beleive I have the same condition which seems to have astounded my family for years and able to remember days, dates, times places. I wasn’t aware there even a name for this until I saw an article in a newspaper sometime ago. I though it might be interesting to put this comment on to see if it generates any interest.

    John Lawrence

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