Unique Memory Lets Woman Replay Life Like a Movie
Neurobiologist James McGaugh, one of the world's experts on human memory, says that a woman he calls AJ has a one-of-a-kind memory. In an interview with NPR, she talks about what life is like for someone who can remember things she’s done and news events from almost every day of her life for the past 25 years. Her life is like a split-screen movie, with the past running almost as vividly as the present.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Yesterday, we brought you the story of a woman who is able to remember news events and personal experiences of nearly every day of her life, over the past 25 years.
She's come to the attention of researchers, six years ago, and after extensive testing, they described her remarkable memory in the scientific journal Neurocase.
Today she talks publicly for the first time about her unique memory. Reporter Michelle Trudeau met with her.
MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:
She's called simply A.J. That's the acronym that researchers use to protect her privacy. She's 40 years old now but recalls clearly that at age 12, she first realized she'd been, as she puts it, hoarding things in her brain for the past year.
A.J.: I was sitting with my mom studying for finals, which I didn't want to be doing. So I started thinking back to the year before, and we had gone to, like, the beach. We had done some sixth grade trips. So I started thinking about that, and I realized, like, oh my God, I could remember a year ago today, like exact dates. It kind of startled me for a moment.
TRUDEAU: She says she didn't tell her parents or her friends about her unique memory, but she did start keeping a diary-a detailed daily record, volumes full.
A.J.: I wrote books. Books, and books, and books. Because I wrote everything.
TRUDEAU: You don't write everything down and that commits it to your memory?
A.J.: No, I have it in my memory first and it swirls and swirls. And then when I write it down, it's at peace.
TRUDEAU: But despite having such a superb memory, it didn't help A.J. at all in school.
A.J.: In school studying about things, and I don't know, I just was really bored in school.
TRUDEAU: She says she always had trouble memorizing history dates, poetry, and other memorization tasks. But she vividly remembers all her classmates; the classrooms; her teachers; and the date, year, and day of the week that events occurred.
I asked her how she does it.
A.J.: I just feel everything very intensely. I mean, I could go outside and really just feel the day. And, a Tuesday feels different than a Thursday. Like, when I think of the spring of '81, you know I can really physically feel it. I'm just there, like so intensely sometimes it really hurts.
TRUDEAU: A.J.'s memories cascade constantly, automatically, one memory tumbling over the next. Even while carrying on a conversation. It's exhausting, she says.
A.J.: It would be as if every day I walked around filming my life and then put a videotape on the shelf. So when you say to me, March 1st, 1981, it is as if I would pull that day out and put it in and watch it. It's just like a running movie. It never stops.
TRUDEAU: So I pick a date, out of the blue. What happened on April 13th, 1987?
A.J.: Um...well I can tell you that it was on a Monday. I had conjunctivitis. Pink Eye. And I was home for Passover.
TRUDEAU: Indeed, April 13th, 1987, was a Monday, the first day of Passover.
A.J. easily remembers thousands of details like this from her past. That she made cookies on April 15th, 1990. That her father went to Baltimore on April 27th, 1994. That she ate dinner at such and such a restaurant on Tuesday, July 1st, 1986. That her house smelled like ham on April 12th, 1998.
And, in A.J.'s memory, personal events like these are tightly linked with major news events.
A.J.: The day that the first shuttle went up, well, I remember when it came in and I felt the sonic boom and I was sitting on the bed waiting for it. It's like, little things like that. And it was a Tuesday.
TRUDEAU: In spite of her extraordinary memory, A.J. reports having had a fairly ordinary childhood, although her diary keeping was compulsive and consuming. She's always been close to her parents, she says, and her younger brother. They don't have, she adds, her kind of memory.
She graduated from college and now works as a supervisor in a private corporation. She says she has good friends, got married a few years ago.
A.J. herself insists, with a chuckle, that she's normal. She has to make grocery lists, just like the rest of us. But A.J.'s memory of nearly every day of her life for the past 25 years is deep and detailed, and according to the researchers who have extensively studied her, A.J. is unique in the scientific literature. Yes, there have been other cases of superior memory, but not like A.J.'s.
She's the first person known to have such a rich, autobiographical memory, and who doesn't use mnemonic strategies, such as rhyming or imagery, to remember events. In fact, when tested, A.J. has trouble with memorization tasks.
I asked A.J. if she considers her special memory a gift.
A.J.: Well, if I'm able to cure a disease it's a gift. But to remember, like, the end of every relationship, or, you know, anything, it's hard. But it has formed who I am; because I remember everything.
TRUDEAU: But A.J. adds that her exceptional memory can also be soothing.
A.J.: I guess I wouldn't want to not be able to remember when I was a kid. It helps me through a lot of hard times. I don't know what other people rely on. I don't know. But, that's what helps me to get through a lot of hard times is remembering the good times.
TRUDEAU: For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.