Jill Price: The Woman Who Can't Forget

Quick: what did you have for lunch yesterday? How about two days ago? If you remember, then you have a pretty good memory - but how about remembering everything you have seen and experienced throughout your life in vivid detail as if it was happening right now?

Meet Jill Price, the woman who simply could not forget:

The three UC Irvine scientists who studied her decided that her case deserved its own name—hyperthymestic syndrome, academic Greek for "exceptional memory"—and it's not hard to see why.

I come prepared with a stack of questionnaires, and when we return to her house, Price is kind enough to let me administer my tests, easily blowing through the first few. I ask, for example, if she can tell me some dates of famous accidents and airline crashes; she's all but unstoppable. She instantly retrieves from memory the exact dates of the explosions of space shuttle Challenger and Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. She remembers not just that September 25, 1978, was when a PSA flight crashed in San Diego but also that the jet collided with a Cessna. She can go in either direction, disaster to date or date to disaster. When I say "January 13, 1982," Price has no trouble recalling the Air Florida flight that plummeted into the Potomac.

According to McGaugh's Neurocase article, Price is even more astounding on the events of her own life. At the scientists' behest, for example, she recalled—without warning and in just 10 minutes—what she'd done on every Easter since 1980. "April 6, 1980: 9th grade, Easter vacation ends. April 19, 1981: 10th grade, new boyfriend, H. April 11, 1982: 11th grade, grandparents visiting for Passover ..

And before you think it's a wonderful thing to have such a prodigious memory, imagine this: Jill Price remembers all the sad and bad things in her life - the death of loved ones, for instance, like it's happening right now. Time heals all wounds, but not for Jill Price.

Link (Photo: Bryce Duffy)

Here's a clip of Jill Price as interviewed on 20/20 by Diane Sawyer:

[YouTube clip]

Jill recounts her experience in her new book: The Woman Who Can't Forget

If you find this interesting, check out our previous post: 10 Most Fascinating Savants in the World

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I remember (I scarcely have the right to use this ghostly verb) the tale "Funes, the Memorious" from the argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, about a man who was able to remember EVERYTHING: "In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it."

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I have a similar issue, maybe not exact and unfaltering like this woman's... but my memory does tend to get a bit crowded as I have a hard time forgetting things. I don't remember exactly everything nor do I make an attempt to, but I remember bits and pieces that happen to be precise details. This makes retracing my steps quite easy and I'll have exactly what I needed based on what I remember.

The problem? I remember the stupidest things. Even if it's just an offhand remark that I read in an email that somehow comes back to haunt the person I'm talking to. "I never said that!" / "Lemme find that email, you said 'blah and blah'... Yep, here it is." / "Aww, crud. You suck."

The worst part about remembering trivial and stupid details is that, yes, it really does crowd the mind. I can't shut my brain off when I try to get to sleep and end up remembering/reliving moments from my years' past that I'd really, really like to forget. Nearly every morning I'll wake up shortly after having a pretty extensive vivid dream. Details as rich as it was happening. Checking the mail 4 years ago, what I got in the mail that day, how I felt, etc... It doesn't go away easily.

Quite frankly, I'm tired of remembering the one moment where I screwed up during piano recital (when I was 7 years old! 23 years ago!) and waking up to it feeling just as embarrassed now as I did then.
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