"A case of unusual autobiographical remembering."
March 17, 2008 4:54 PM   Subscribe

51-year-old Brad Williams, a radio anchor in La Crosse, Wisconsin, can “recall the most trifling dates and details about his life….[n]ame a date from the last 40 years and, after a few moments, he can typically tell you what he did that day and what was in the news.” Brad has Hyperthymesia, a condition where the affected person has incredible recall of the most trivial events in his/her life. Neuroscientist James McGaugh and others at the University of California, Irvine, are studying Williams for clues as to his remarkable abilities [video]. Williams (aka 'Google Man' | video) vs. The Internet [video]. His brother, Eric, is working on a documentary about Brad – Unforgettable [trailer].
posted by ericb (19 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Williams there is nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:02 PM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

And here I am unable to remember what I ate for lunch two days ago.
posted by bunnytricks at 5:07 PM on March 17, 2008

Life imitates art.
posted by nasreddin at 5:10 PM on March 17, 2008

I wonder if the documentary or the research will explore the downsides of such an ability. I would imagine forgetting things is crucial to, say, recovering from different kinds of trauma.
posted by basicchannel at 5:28 PM on March 17, 2008

To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Williams there is nothing but details, almost contiguous details.

The first case of Hyperthymesia (aka 'hyperthymestic syndrome') that UCI's James McGaugh et al. studied was that of a 40-year-old woman, A.J. "She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life’s experiences as 'a movie in her mind that never stops.'"

"'A.J. is both a warden and a prisoner of her memories,' said [UC Irvine researcher Elizabeth] Parker, a clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology and lead author of the paper [A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering -- pdf]. 'They can at times be a burden because they cannot be controlled, but she told us that if she had a choice, she would not want to give them up.'" *
posted by ericb at 5:29 PM on March 17, 2008

More recently from A.J. (from the CNN link in the FPP):
"She told McGaugh that whenever she hears a date, memories from that date in previous years flood her mind like a running movie. The phenomenon, she laments, is 'nonstop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.' 'Most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden,' she wrote. 'I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!'

posted by ericb at 5:32 PM on March 17, 2008

Google man? More like wayback machine man.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:33 PM on March 17, 2008

Someone watched NBC Nightly News this evening. :)
posted by middleclasstool at 5:36 PM on March 17, 2008

Curse you, nasreddin!

Oh, wait, I can be Menard to your Cervantes:

Life imitates art.
posted by languagehat at 6:04 PM on March 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

What if he's faking it? Ask me what I did on June 16th 1977. Go Ahead. I'll amaze you. Guaranteed.
posted by Gungho at 7:05 PM on March 17, 2008

L-hat and nasreddin seem to have the Borges angle covered so I'll just share this Marilu Henner anecdote (which I saw live and was very funny).

"Several years ago, during an interview on the late-night NBC program Later, she revealed that she can remember what she did on any given date in the past. The host, Bob Costas chose to ask about July 20, 1969, the night of the first moon landing. Henner was briefly dumbstruck before revealing that she had lost her virginity that night in the shower, to which Costas replied, "At least we know Neil Armstrong wasn't the culprit." (See hyperthymesia.) Similar to the "ax-throwing incident" on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, this spontaneous moment was used often in Later anniversary clip shows."
posted by vronsky at 7:10 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was seventeen, I worked as a lifeguard at a summer camp with a guy who claimed to have this ability. I don't remember believing him for a second. He'd sit on his bunk in the corner of our deeply shadowed cabin down by the lake, his shoulders hunched forward, his oversized glasses sliding down his nose, and laboriously and seriously describe a sunset he had seen on a specific day as a child, the menu and sensation of a meal he had eaten on another, the time it had started raining on a third. I was skeptical: even if he was telling the truth, how could anyone besides him ever know? Who could verify the precise pinkness of a Nebraska sky on July 2nd, 1979? Who could tell me that the taste of a twelve-year-old pancake matched the adjectives used to bring it to life? What newspaper, with what poetic attention to detail, would have recorded the minute at which the first raindrop fell?

I also didn't believe him because I didn't particularly like him. When he wasn't morose and withdrawn, he was high-strung, prone to temper tantrums when things didn't go exactly as he wanted them to. When he chased another lifeguard down the beach, stumbling and screaming about some minor practical joke, the rest of us just had to laugh. For a normal person, one of which we basically thought he was, it was a display of bad character richly rewarded.

But what if he wasn't normal? I don't actually, literally, vividly remember what he looked like sitting in that cabin, or which Midwestern state the sun was supposed to have set on. The description is as close to truthful as I can make it, but even as I compose it, I recognize that the structure is a shoddy one, patched together with vaguely associated impressions and misrememberings and memories of memories and outright invention. My memory, like most people's, is an elaborate set of interlocking fictions. This, by and large, is the stuff of which we're made, and there's great pleasure and relief in it: the luxury of selectively remembering and the even greater luxury of forgetting.

But what if he didn't have those luxuries? What if, right now, twenty years later, he remembers exactly how he was sitting, and how I was sitting, and the ambient temperature, and how the glasses felt on his nose, and the sounds of kids up the hill, and the smell of the sand outside, and an itch on his ankle, and what he had eaten for lunch? What if he remembers every slight, every childhood cruelty, every time he cried as if they happened yesterday? I don't want to psychologize, but I do want to empathize, and I can say safely of myself, if not of him, that this would have made me somewhat more than unpleasant to be around.

So, P.J., wherever you've landed, if you were lying, you were obviously lonely and I hope you've found happiness. If you were telling the truth, you were even lonelier, unfathomably so, and I hope you've learned some ways to forget, or at least cleaned out the house on Jeopardy.
posted by dyoneo at 7:37 PM on March 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

p.s. to nasreddin and languagehat: after review on the field, infinitewindow beat you both.
posted by dyoneo at 7:39 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder what would happen if we left someone with hyperthymesia on a desert isle with an unlimited supply of booze* for six months or so, to interfere with their sense of dates.

Could they still recall all the trivia or do they need to fixate on the calendar date?

I dunno, hyperthymesia could be really useful for studying for tests - as long as you remember when you were studying for a particular question.

*or underground with light cycles ad libitum, but desert isle + booze would probably be more fun
posted by porpoise at 8:01 PM on March 17, 2008

Interesting. How far back into childhood can they remember?

Do they remember days remembering other days, remembering other...?
posted by artdrectr at 10:46 PM on March 17, 2008

I've long had an ability to remember days of the week ... like, if I remember going to ride horses when I was 8, I can all of a sudden remember that it was a Tuesday ... of course I'm not always able to verify if I'm write, but I am pretty confident
posted by mannequito at 11:02 PM on March 17, 2008

More art, for life to imitate.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:44 PM on March 17, 2008

Thanks, Nasreddin, that was a great and beautiful Borges story I had never read.

Totally off topic, but I suddenly realized upon reading it that Alvaro Mutis borrowed his narrator's voice from Borges.
posted by jackbrown at 12:04 AM on March 18, 2008

Tourist visiting way out west is introduced to an Indian Chief by a guide.

Guide says: "This Indian chief is amazing. Ask him any question - no matter how dumb - about anything he did any day in his life and he can answer it in a flash."

Tourist thinks for a bit and says: "Okay, Indian Chief - what did you eat for breakfast 19 years ago today?"

Indian hardly pauses before answering "Eggs!".

Tourist stalks off - disgusted. Tells the guide "Gee, he could just be making that up for all I know. Whatever..."


Tourist is revisiting places he's been and spots an ancient Indian Chief sitting outside a store. Remembering stuff from cowboy movies, and feeling a bit foolish, tourist raises one palm to the Chief and says politely "How, Chief!!"

Indian hardly pauses before answering: "Scrambled!"
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:23 AM on March 18, 2008 [7 favorites]

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