The man who never forgets

(Cartoon by Greg Williams, from Wikipedia)

The term hyperthymestic syndrome was proposed by James L. McGaugh, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues, following their case study of the woman known as A.J. (The study was published in the journal Neurocase, and is available as a PDF; there’s also this story on  NPR.)

Now in her mid-40s, A.J. contacted the researchers, telling them about her “non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting” autobiographical memory. While researchers have been fortunate enough to study a number of amnesic patients (see, for example, the case of H.M.) A.J. was, until recently, the only confirmed case of hyperthymesia.

But since last summer, McGaugh has been working with another individual with a superior autobiographical memory. Brad Williams is a 51-year old radio news anchor from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Like AJ, Williams can recall, with remarkable accuracy and reliability, the personal events that occurred on any day in his past. But unlike others with superior memory, Williams (and A.J.) do not use practised mnemonics to store such vast amounts of information. 

Williams is the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Unforgettable. You can watch the trailer below.


12 thoughts on “The man who never forgets

  1. My cousin is like this – whenever we want to recall some family event he can always tell us exactly when it happened and the day of the week. As he has a physics PhD, we younger less intellectually endowed cousins always attributed it to his brainpower but perhaps something more specific is going on. Very interesting.

  2. Wow, it would seem fun to have that condition, for one day. It would be like having a history book shoved inside your head. I wonder what it feels like to have that kind of memory? Does it hurt your brain? Do you get a headache? Great article.

  3. Is there some gene that codes for this?
    This could really be helpful for those of us who do stuff like go to the kitchen and forget why we’re there.
    It would also be interesting to compare their memories to any factual data such as photographs, to see if they are distorting anything when they form memories. I know I do that – remember an object but not in its correct location, or remember the color wrong, etc.

  4. Mo, the most rudimentary ethics and principles of reciprocity would require me to pay you tuition – especially in a culture where everything is for sale.

  5. yogi-one – there are numerous genes involved in memory formation, but our understanding of the molecular and cellular processes (such as LTP, for example) are very rudimentary. As I mentioned above, the memories are apparently very accurate and reliable. You might be interested in reading these earlier posts: The neurogenetics of traumatic memories, and Reconstructive memory: Confabulating the past, simulating the future.
    gerald – please feel free to buy me books, or, if you prefer, I can give you my PayPal email address!

  6. When you are talking about a syndrome like this, Hyperthymesia or whatever, you just can not bank upon one single person; for you need to establish the same (or little different) constellation of symptoms in other people too. This will establish a syndrome: that is not due to a mere chance occurrence.

  7. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer, wrote a short story “Funes the Memorious” about someone who remembered everything and found it impossible to function in the real world. An interesting adjunct to this article.

  8. My dad had a friend like that. I don’t remember meeting him; I was too young when we moved away. Dad said that he remembered everything; every film that he had seen, every page he’d ever read, every car that went by on his street. He worked as an accountant, and could recite figures from any page of the ledgers. (This was in the 1940s, so everything was entered by hand.)
    He never married, never moved out of his mother’s house; work and home was all he could take. Outside, he’d see a store sign, for example, and instantly remember every time he’d seen it before, every time he went in, every object he’d bought, every other customer, even. It was all too overwhelming for him.

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