At one time or another, most have us have forgotten where we left our car keys or paused in the middle of a sentence because we lost our train of thought. Call them lapses in memory or “senior moments.” But, wouldn’t it be nice if you could remember everything you wanted, going back your entire life? Well, for one California woman that capability is both a gift and a curse.
Life on Automatic Rewind
Jill Price can remember every detail of her life from the time that she was 14 years old to the present. Not just familiar memories but every minutia from the date, time and day of the week that Elvis died to when Mount St. Helens erupted or the time of day when the Rodney King beating took place. “My life is like a split-screen,” says Price. “Though I’ll be living in the present, a dozen times or more a day I’ll be pulled back into reliving specific memories of the past.” All it takes is seeing something on TV, a song or a familiar smell to send Price back decades in time. She can tell you what she was doing, what her friends said and even what her mother ordered for lunch at a restaurant.
Price traces the beginning of her unique gift to a traumatic time as an 8-year-old when she was forced to move from her east coast home to California. The move triggered a series of traumatic bouts of anxiety and depression – bouts she has learned to control over time. After marrying at 37, she suffered a miscarriage and lost her husband two years later due to a stroke. The onslaught of memories – both good and bad – was relentless. For years, Price tried to suppress her unpleasant memories, but they returned with a vengeance.
A New Diagnosis
After enduring her “gift” for more than 20 years, Price finally wrote to Dr. James McGaugh, a neuroscientist and a leading memory researcher affiliated with the University of California, Irvine looking for answers as to why she held onto such vivid memories. He was astounded by what he heard. Relying on historical almanacs and a diary that Jill has kept for more than 20 years, Dr. McGaugh and his research team tested her recollection of events going back to her childhood. Dr. Larry Cahill, an associate of Dr. McGaugh’s, quizzed Price about a specific Christmas special on the popular sitcom, “Murphy Brown.” Correcting her on a minor detail, Price said, “Well, actually it was a Brady Bunch Christmas special the week before.” He was aghast.
After performing a series of evaluations that included CAT scans and MRIs, McGaugh determined that Price has a part of her brain that is three times the size of other women her age. They published a research paper, proposing a new name for her condition called “hyperthymestic syndrome,” or quite simply, having a superior memory. According to McGaugh, the parts of Price’s brain that are enlarged are consistent with people with obsessive compulsive disorder. Like OCD patients, Price is a collector – she has a collection of over 100 dolls.
Company in Numbers
Since the time that Price was first diagnosed with hyperthymestic syndrome, two other people with similar symptoms have surfaced. However, unlike Price who has struggled with vivid traumatic memories of her childhood, the others seem to have more control over their memories and the impact they play on their current lives.
“The constant onslaught of memories is both a blessing and a curse,” says Price. The pleasant memories serve as a form of comfort. “I have this warm, safe feeling that helps me to get through anything.” Unfortunately, she also has to deal with reliving unpleasant memories that replay in Technicolor. “Over the years, it has paralyzed my life. It has eaten me up.”