Endless Memory

AKA: Superior Autobiographical Intelligence

Bob Hatcher

January 20, 2011

Maggie and I saw two amazing segments of 60 minutes this past December 19th. They were called ENDLESS MEMORY. There were six individuals who could remember virtually every day of their lives from sometime early in childhood on. Individuals who have this ability are diagnosed as having Superior Autobiographical Memory.

Lesley Stahl kept asking them questions and their memory was truly remarkable. Superior was not the word I was thinking of.  Try Absolutely Incredible memory or Unbelievable or “You won’t believe this.”  

One of the six was actress, Marilu Henner (of Taxi fame). She could remember each of the innumerable pairs of shoes in her closet – where it came from, the date she bought it, what she wore it with and what she did that day. She could remember everything else about her life.

The brains of these six individuals have been and continue to be studied extensively. MRI scans reveal that parts of their temporal lobes (a key area for memory) are larger. The caudate nucleus (an area implicated in obsessive-compulsive disorder and habit formation) is 7 to 10 standard deviations larger in these individuals than the caudate nuclei of ordinary mortals.  

There was also discussion of the possible downside of this remarkable deviation from the norm.  The individuals tended to categorize every event in their lives compulsively. For example, they could run through every bowling experience or round of golf, or amorous relationship or breakup in their lives as though they were turning pages of a book.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a term used to describe some of their activities.

One of the men followed professional football and when any date was mentioned he would tell the interviewer exactly what happened to his team.  One date several decades ago he remembered immediately that Roger Staubach had had a bad concussion and the screen immediately went to a picture of the hit that knocked him out followed by a shot of Staubach sitting on the bench looking completely out of it. What about one specific date, we will say November 11, 1987, he was asked. (I can’t remember the date and it has only been 5 days!!).  He paused for about 10 seconds and then said with a wry grin on his face something to this effect: “You are trying to confuse me. We had a bye that Sunday!”  “Amazing” gasped Lesley Stahl, “you are absolutely right!”

Rather than hearing a word from Andy Rooney, I wanted to hear more from Lesley Stahl and her six incredible guests.