||Last Updated: Sep 26, 2012 - 9:20:05 AM
Extraordinary. Remarkable. Impossible.
As I read through the studies, of these singular human beings, and their powers of recall, these are the words that kept popping into my head. Once you see what they can do, I’m certain you’ll agree. In the research literature, there have been only two reported cases (AJ-female and HK-male) of hyperthymesia (thymesia, in Greek, means “remembering”), that is, a case of superior autobiographical memory.
Up for a challenge? Try to match your memory against theirs. Take a look at the accompanying chart and see how many dates, and events, you can recall (answer are below).
For people like AJ and HK, this task is back of the hand. Researchers Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill and James McGaugh from UCLA and USC presented these 10 dates to AJ and asked her to name the significant event that took place on that day. She nailed all 10. Then they flipped it and presented 10 events and asked her to name the precise date. Once again, perfection.
And it gets better: researchers asked AJ (born in 1967) to write down the precise date on which Easter fell in each of the prior 24 years. Inside of ten minutes, AJ completed the feat to near perfection (examples: April 6, 1980, March 26, 1989 – in all, she missed just one date, and that by two days). For good measure, AJ added a personal entry next to each date: for example, on March 30, 1997, AJ had “dinner with J and C (friends),” and on April 12, 1998, “house smells like ham, M (friend) over.”
Enter HK, born in 1989, also with superior autobiographical memory. Similar to AJ, HK’s memory grew dramatically in the pre-teen years, and rose to near perfection by about age 14. According to a report last year in Research Digest (a publication of the British Psychological Society), researchers decided to test HK’s memory by choosing four dates from each year of his life since his first memory (at age 3 and a half). For each of these 80 dates, according to the Research Digest report, researchers “gathered at least three facts from HK’s family, medical records and the historical records for his neighborhood in Nashville.” Research Digest reports that HK was then asked “ ‘Can you tell me what happened during your day on Jan. 2, 2001’ [and] his answers, often detailed, were transcribed and fact-checked.” Accuracy was astounding, said the researchers.
To illustrate, the Research Digest report contains this extraordinary exchange between HK and a television interviewer in Nashville:
"So if I give you a random day you could tell me what you were doing on that day?" we asked him.
He confidently replied, "Yes."
So we quizzed his memory, randomly asking about the first Saturday of July 2009.
"The first Saturday of July, 2009, I went to Mr. Bradford's, we got ready, went to a picnic at the Huddlestun's house," he explained.
Like a rolodex, Derryberry walked us through each memory, even what he had for lunch. It was BBQ, in case you're curious.
But what surprised us the most was when he revealed what unfolded later that day.
"Between 4 and 5 somebody came out of the house and said that Steve McNair had been shot and killed," he recalled.
Sure enough, it was the day Titans player Steve McNair was murdered in his Nashville apartment.
But was it a lucky guess? We asked about Saturday October 4, 2008?
HK said he watched the Vanderbilt football game.
"They beat Auburn on Saturday, October, 4, 2008 to make Vandy 5-0. They beat Auburn 14- 13 that day," he remembered.
He was right, again.
Researchers have analyzed the brain function of both AJ and HK, hoping to use their findings to help memory-impaired individuals in the general population. Indeed, HK’s neurologist Dr. Brandon Ally points out that "Autobiographical memory is one of the first things that tends to break down in Alzheimer's disease, so if we can understand the opposite pattern perhaps it can help us learn about memory in general,” as reported in Research Digest.
And while brain stimulation to parts of the brain has shown promise in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, the Research Digest report explained: “Ally and his team acknowledged that ‘unique case studies such as HK are not easily translated or generalized to the normal population’, and so should be interpreted with caution. That said, they argued their results provide further evidence for the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory. ‘Further, perhaps the present findings can help guide future regions of brain stimulation in memory-disordered populations, with the goal of improving memory function,’ they speculated.”
What happened on these dates (and on what day of the week?)
Aug. 16, 1977
June 6, 1978
May 25, 1979
Nov. 4, 1979
May 18, 1980
Oct. 5, 1983
Jan. 17, 1994
Dec. 21, 1988
May 3, 1991
On what date did this happen?
Plane crash in San Diego?
Who shot JR episode?
Persian Gulf War begins?
Rodney King beating?
OJ Simpson verdict?
Bombing at Atlanta Olympics?
Death of Princess Diana?
Election date for G.W. Bush
Election dates for Clinton?
JK’s answers to the date quiz:
Aug. 16, 1977 – Tuesday, Elvis died; June 6, 1978 – Proposition 13 passed in CA; May 25, 1979 – plane crash, Chicago; Nov. 4, 1979 – Iranian invasion of US Embassy; May 18, 1980 – Sunday, Mt. St. Helens erupted; Oct. 5, 1983 – Wednesday, bombing in Beirut, killed 300; Jan. 17, 1994 – Monday, Northridge earthquake; Dec. 21, 1988 – Lockerby plane crash; May 3, 1991 – last episode of Dallas; May 4, 2001 – Robert Blake’s wife killed.
Answers (dates) AJ gave
San Diego crash – Sept. 25, 1978; JR – Nov. 21, 1980; Gulf War – Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1991; Rodney King beating – March 3, 1991; OJ Simpson verdict – Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1995; Atlanta bombing – July 26, 1996; Princess Diana – Aug. 30, or 31, 1997 (depending on France or US); Concorde – July 25, 2000; Elections date – G.W. Bush – Nov. 7, 2000; Clinton – Nov. 3, 1992 and Nov. 5, 1996.