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










Comments

I don't know about this lady in particular, but there are other documented people who have astounding powers of memory-- Kim Peek comes to mind.

capital L   ·  July 8, 2008 10:10 PM

I don't object to the notion that some people have amazing memories, but that this case presents a "syndrome" or a "condition."

I can often recall my own words and those of others verbatim, can sometimes see printed pages clearly with my mind's eye when trying to recall information, and amaze my students from time to time by recalling lines of Greek or Latin poetry or by explicating a bit of prose they've been assigned without ever looking at the page. And I know that I don't have special, mysterious abilities. I've just spent enough time thinking about these things and caring about them.

I have a pretty good memory, and know that if I were self-obsessed, kept a written journal of my daily life, and believed in my own magical memory, I might be able to recall the last 20 years just as well.

We already know of people whose brains are wired such that they can perform calculations or access data virtually impossible for the average person (like Kim Peek, they're called savants), but doesn't her "condition" just strike you as a kind of narcissism?

And even if she should have something in common with savants, why give a special name to her so-called condition, and why not investigate the mundane possibility that she has read and reread her own journals so often that she can't help but know all about herself?

Dennis   ·  July 8, 2008 10:43 PM

"...why not investigate the mundane possibility that she has read and reread her own journals so often that she can't help but know all about herself?"

Poor girl. I have read blogposts I wrote at an old blog about four years ago and reveled in the discovery of my former self.

Donna B.   ·  July 9, 2008 12:05 AM

She is wasting her time.

Gringo   ·  July 9, 2008 10:25 AM

Hard to see what value the rest of us derive from this amazing gift of hers. Marcel Proust gave us a great literary work when he began reflecting on his life, this woman gives us what? She skinned her knee and had a tuna sandwich for lunch?

To me, it's pathetic that her talent is nothing but excruciatingly detailed navel gazing. We could make her the patron saint of our narcissistic age, devote a magazine and reality show to her, and have her do the daytime TV shows in and endless loop. Whatever lucky network signs her can scrap the entire rest of their programming.

And I thought Rachel Ray was tedious...

Steve Skubinna   ·  July 9, 2008 1:27 PM

Even capacious memory can be odd. CS Lewis could not tell you what Act II, scene iv, line 12 of Coriolanus was, but if you gave him the line, could continue verbatim to the end of the play - he could apparently do this for all the works of literature on his shelf. Some baseball pitchers can recall every pitch they have thrown. I am rather skeptical of the idea that "upper end of the bell curve" = syndrome.

Self-focus and intentional memorization might indeed increase such memory skills, but even this is suspect. We do not remember events, but remember the last time we remembered. We break down and store the memory again each time, which creates subtle changes over time. It would be an interesting test to have her on camera for a month and pick a day five years later and compare.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  July 9, 2008 2:16 PM

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