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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Column: Total recall

Memory

Jill Price remembers almost everything. Pick any date out of her past, and she can tell you what she ate for dinner that night. She can tell you when she woke up, what day of the week it was and what the weather was like.

No matter how mundane, memories stick with her. Price has what scientists call “superior autobiographical memory.”

To be clear, Price is not what you would consider a savant. She was never diagnosed with a mental disability.

She cannot speed through books in an hour, nor can she recite long strings of arbitrary numbers and symbols. She says memorizing a poem is as painful for her as anyone else. She was never a prodigious student.

Simply put, she is an independent, competent adult, who happens to remember every facet of her life in absurd detail.

Price was the first subject of a relatively young study at UC Irvine that now includes over 30 more confirmed cases, as of last year.

Pioneering this research is Dr. James McGaugh, an expert in neurobiology. He was doubtful when he received the first email from Price, back in 2000. She reached out in desperation, tired of her unexplained condition.

Up until then, conceptions of photographic memory were always met with heavy skepticism. The phenomenon appeared more in fictional stories than in scientific papers.

Now, with more subjects to study, and more brain imaging, we’re going somewhere — if not forward. Preliminary results were puzzling.

Two areas of the brain are significantly larger in those who have superior autobiographical memory: The first area is the temporal lobe, responsible for storing new memories. More notably, the second area is the caudate nucleus, which plays a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder, when overactive.

A statistically significant portion of those studied exhibited obsessive-compulsive tendencies in one way or another.

Price has over 50,000 pages of journal entries. Another subject, Marilu Henner, details her meticulously organized closet. Bob Petrella describes how he frequently washes his car keys.

They collect, categorize and maintain not only their possessions, but also their memories. The link between their memory condition and their compulsions is not entirely clear.

Unknown is whether their behavior, and brain size, are the product of their memory, or the cause of their memory.

In any case, it seems this tireless practice of organization is essential to their sanity. The repetitions of daily life become so familiar when nothing is edited out. Logically, their memories are inescapable — everything presents a cue for the past.

Price describes being owned by her memory, finding it hard to move forward. The irrelevant memories that most people forget, in order to focus on the present, are indelible to her.

Remarkably, though, the other five subjects who gave interviews insist the past does not snarl their thoughts. Memories are deliberately packed away, ready for access when they see fit. They seem genuinely happy in their abilities, even if they are bothersome at times.

The insight these subjects provide could have profound effects on the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases, according to McGaugh and the rest of his team.

Similarly, these exceptional people can alter our understanding of how we interact with our memories, and how they shape our identity.

Despite their seemingly inhuman qualities, I don’t think Price and her peers are all that different from the rest of us. We can see a great deal of the past, even without their absolute memories.

It’s not hard to think of our phones, our computers, our online profiles — their memory capacities increasing all the time — as extensions of ourselves.

Further, there are more than a few of us who restlessly document life, right down to the smallest details. It would not take long to find someone who posted a picture of dinner on Instagram. I plead guilty.

Perhaps we are creating for each other a more concrete form of photographic memory, one that can be shared more readily.

Knowing the compulsive organizational routines of those with total recall, each irresistible visit to Facebook seems more purposeful — more a necessary maintenance than a frivolous waste of time.

Ultimately, though, we have the delete button. There is always some convenience in forgetting.

If you found this column memorable, tell SEAN LENEHAN at splenehan@ucdavis.edu. If you didn’t, just forget it.

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