July 08, 2008
She blinded them with science! Or maybe not.
I've recently bought a portable media player* and begun downloading baudcasts**.
So what prompted this post was the July 6th edition of PRI's To the Best of Our Knowledge: "How we remember." Specifically it was the segment on Jill Price, known previously only by the name "AJ". She has been studied by a team of university researchers who have given her supposed condition—the ability to recall every day of her life since the age of 14—the name hyperthymesia.
This does not strike me as a condition at all, and certainly not something worthy of study. What are the conditions under which this condition presents itself?
"1) the person spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past, and 2) the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from their personal past"
So "hyperthymesia" is nothing more than self-obsession tied to a calendar?
Her party trick is the ability to describe the details of her personal life when given a specific date. And it might be impressive if it weren't for the fact that she has kept a journal since 1976, which she provided the researchers so that they could check the accuracy of her recollections.
Given the powers of memory we've known about for millennia (consider the rhapsodes of ancient Greece, the Shakespearean actors of our own day, or the religious adherents who memorize their holy books, as in the Hindu or Muslim traditions), it is not remarkable that someone could memorize such a written record.
Ms. Price was asked on the program about significant past events. Off the bat she was asked about the day Reagan was shot, which she recognized immediately. Who doesn't recall where they were during a major event? The near assassination of a president was a lob, and one she's doubtless been asked a hundred times. Another, the invasion of Grenada, she sidestepped, saying she wouldn't know anything about that as she was just wrapped up in herself at that time. (Perhaps it just didn't make it into her journal.) Asked about a specific day, she gave details of the following weekend, or noted that it was the anniversary of her mother's cancer diagnosis.
Where is the real precision of memory?
Is it a hoax? Perhaps. It brings to mind Project Alpha, in which two young magicians who contacted James Randi independently volunteering to pose as psychics, fooled a group of university researchers who believed they had found evidence of the supernatural. Despite their degrees and apparent scientific method, they were fooled by a couple of kids.
And yet this need not be a hoax. Ms. Price needn't have actively deceived anyone, seeking out fame and fortune (though her book is doing well).
No, it's possible she really believes that she has a special ability.*** She claims that she realized her ability at the age of 12, and can recall every detail of her life from the age of 14. If you had become obsessed with your own ability to recall the mundane details of your life, and had kept a daily journal, do you doubt that you could have the same recollection?
It should actually be far easier to recall impressions of personal experiences, recorded and reread, than to recall fixed literary texts, so the objection of quantity of data is void.
And why are the dates so significant? Is it because the journal entries are dated and help her to organize the data?
The lead researcher, after 8 years, has given the so-called condition a name and believes it to be real, but has no idea how it works. He has used the journal to verify her memories. And yet this has not occurred to him?
* it's not an iPod, as I detest Apple, and it's not an mp3 player, as I prefer OGG Vorbis files, which are smaller and take up less space.
** I just made this up (though I wasn't the first) because, again, I detest Apple and their borgian tactics, and because baudcast actually rhymes with broadcast, unlike podcast, which rhymes with nothing.
*** Many psychics actually believe in their own non-abilities, having learned techniques such as cold-reading without realizing that they are not doing anything magical, but simply deluding themselves. One could say that this is precisely what the researchers have done.
posted by Dennis on 07.08.08 at 03:06 PM
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