Archive for March, 2009

Want a Super Memory? Keep a Journal and Refer to it Often.

March 24, 2009

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

When I was in college taking a class in ‘new journalism’ one assignment was to write about a personal experience.

What a softball, right?

I wrote about an occurrence my senior year in high school when my honors English teacher threw me out of the class and nearly scotched my high school graduation. [That’s a long story for another time].

To protect her anonymity, in my college writing assignment I changed my teacher’s name to ‘Mrs. Rodgers.’ Now, all these years later, I can’t remember her real name without referring to my high school yearbook.

What a muddle the human memory is. It depends so much on context. It’s easily swayed by suggestion. There are memory overlaps and sudden disappearances. Add to that the puzzle of the strangely precise re-memory that happens when people grow aged.

So imagine the astonishment when university researchers University of California-Irvine came across a woman they called JP who could remember with perfect clarity the exact date of Challenger Disaster. She could easily and accurately recall names and conversations from decades before. She knows when the ‘Who Shot JR?’ episode of Dallas aired and what the weather was like on the day of the finale of MASH aired.

In the journal Neurocase, the researchers described JP’s case and gave it a name; hyperthymestic syndrome, meaning exceptional memory.

The school’s PR office sniffed out a story and with JP’s permission they released her real name to the media… Jill Price. Ms. Price quickly became a cause celebre, making the rounds at Oprah, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

There was even an awkward (but ultimately vindicating) moment on 20/20 in 2008 Diane Sawyer asked Ms. Price when Princess Grace died. Price replied, ‘Sept 14, 1982.’ Diane Sawyer said no, the date was Sept 10, 1982. But after 60 uncomfortable seconds, someone chimed in from off-camera that, in fact, Jill Price was correct.

How to explain the seemingly inexplicable disparity between the extraordinary quality of Ms. Price’s memory and my rather mediocre one (and, probably, yours, too)?

Into this conundrum comes Gary Marcus, PhD., a cognitive psychologist at New York University, who writes about his personal experience with Ms. Price in the April 2009 issue of Wired magazine.

For their meeting, Marcus brought with him a stack of questionnaires and very quickly discovered that Ms. Price’s memory is rather solipsistic. She remembers not so much things like how to calculate the volume of a cone or what day John Wilkes Booth was killed or even a great recipe for turtle brownies.

Instead, Ms. Price remembers things that happened to her and things she witnessed on television. He also found something that UC Irvine researchers knew about, but didn’t detail in their paper: Ms. Price keeps a meticulous journal of her life, one that she refers to frequently. That’s a sample page from Ms. Price’s journal above.

Marcus concludes with this:

But even if Price’s memory is just the byproduct of obsession, she’s still amazing. I’ve come to think of her as the Michael Jordan of autobiography. Jordan wasn’t born the greatest basketball player of all time; he became the greatest, combining considerable but not unique innate talent with an incredible amount of hard work shooting free throws and practicing jumpers long after most of his peers were out carousing. Whether intentionally or not, Price has shown the same sort of daily dedication to chronicling her own life.

Want a super memory? Do what what the ‘Michael Jordan’ of memory does. Keep a journal and refer to it often.