Intelligent Design

Say it this time with feeling: “Isn’t natural selection amazing!”

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What is the survival and reproductive value of a perfect memory? Let me guess: the woman “AJ” described in the article below also has an uncanny ability to attract mates and has given birth to numerous offspring — all on account of her prodigious memory!

Woman With Perfect Memory Baffles Scientists

Updated 11:50 PM ET March 24, 2006

ABC News.com http://dailynews.att.net/cgi-bin/news?e=pub&dt=060324&cat=scitech&st=scitechdyehard_woman_memory_060320&src=abc

James McGaugh is one of the world’s leading experts on how the human memory system works. But these days, he admits he’s stumped.

McGaugh’s journey through an intellectual purgatory began six years ago when a woman now known only as AJ wrote him a letter detailing her astonishing ability to remember with remarkable clarity even trivial events that happened decades ago.

Give her any date, she said, and she could recall the day of the week, usually what the weather was like on that day, personal details of her life at that time, and major news events that occurred on that date.

Like any good scientist, McGaugh was initially skeptical. But not anymore.

“This is real,” he says.

Soon after AJ took over his life, McGaugh teamed with two fellow researchers at the University of California at Irvine. Elizabeth Parker, a clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology (and lead author of a report on the research in the current issue of the journal Neurocase), and Larry Cahill, an associate professor of neurobiology and behavior, have joined McGaugh in putting AJ through an exhaustive series of interviews and psychological tests. But they aren’t a lot closer today to understanding her amazing ability than they were when they started.

“We are trying to find out, but we haven’t hit ‘bingo’ yet,” says McGaugh.

His initial hypothesis, like several others, has turned out to be wrong — or at least incomplete.

McGaugh has spent decades studying how such things as stress hormones and emotions affect memory, and at first he thought AJ’s memories were of such emotional power that she couldn’t forget them.

But that hypothesis fell short of the mark when it became obvious that “the woman who can’t forget” remembers trivial details as clearly as major events. Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.

“Here’s a woman who has very strong memories, but she has very strong memories of things for which I have no memory at all,” McGaugh says.

That became particularly clear one day when he asked her out of the blue if she knew who Bing Crosby was.

“I wasn’t sure she would know, because she’s 40 and wasn’t of the Bing Crosby era,” he says.

But she did.

“Do you know where he died?” McGaugh asked.

“Oh yes, he died on a golf course in Spain,” she answered, and provided the day of the week and the date when the crooner died.

When the researchers asked her to list the dates when they had interviewed her, she “just reeled them off, bang, bang, bang.”

She also told McGaugh that on the day after a particular interview, which took place several years ago, he flew to Germany.

“I said what? I went to Germany? I couldn’t even remember what year I had gone to Germany,” he says.

That level of recall suggests another hypothesis. Some people are able to recall past events by categorizing them. Certain events, or facts, are associated with others, and filed away together so that they may be easier to access. That’s a trick that is often used by entertainers who use feats of memory to wow their audience.

AJ does have “some sort of compulsive tendencies. She wants order in her life,” McGaugh says. “As a child, she would get upset if her mother changed anything in her room because she had a place for everything and wanted everything in its place.

“So she does categorize events by the date, but that doesn’t explain why she remembers it.”

Also, her degree of recall is so much greater than any other person’s in the scientific literature that it seems unlikely to be the complete answer, McGaugh adds.

She is also quite different from savants who have surfaced from time to time with extraordinary abilities in music, art or memory.

“Some of them can remember every single detail about the particular hobby that they have, such as baseball or calendars or art, but they are very narrow,” he says. McGaugh described one person who could memorize a piece of music instantly, and not forget it, but who “couldn’t make change or couldn’t take a bus because he didn’t know where he was.”

By contrast, AJ is a ” fully functioning person,” McGaugh says.

The researchers are preparing to take their work in a new direction in hopes of understanding what is going on here. It’s possible AJ’s brain is wired differently, and that may show up through magnetic resonance imaging. Testing is expected to begin within six months.

“We will be looking at her brain, using brain scanning techniques, to see if there’s anything that is dramatically different that we can point to,” McGaugh says.

Those of us with normal, very fallible memories function somewhat like a computer in that different areas of our brains are interconnected and thus better-suited for general memories. We know where we live and how to get to work, but we may not know what the weather was like on this date four years ago.

It’s possible that AJ’s brain has some “disconnections” that help her recall past events from her memory bank without interference from the parts of her brain that act as general processors. But the problem is that even if they find some interesting wiring through brain scans, the researchers will be limited in their conclusions by the fact that AJ seems to be unique.

So unique, in fact, that the Irvine team has given her condition a new name. They call it hyperthymestic syndrome, based on the Greek word thymesis for “remembering” and hyper, meaning “more than normal.”

Some day, the researchers say, they hope to know what’s different about AJ’s brain, but they are still a ways off.

“In order to explain a phenomenon you have to first understand the phenomenon,” McGaugh says. “We’re at the beginning.”

16 Replies to “Say it this time with feeling: “Isn’t natural selection amazing!”

  1. 1
    jacktone says:

    Amazing! I wonder if it is a problem for her, like, does she have these memories running around and around in her head like when I’m having trouble going to sleep. I don’t sense anything like this in the article and the description seems to contradict anything like it.
    I guess that we shouldn’t be surprised to find such an anomaly in “the most complex arrangement of matter in the known universe”.

  2. 2
    Charliecrs says:

    Wow cool, i’ve never heard of something like this… Amazing!!!!.

    Charlie

  3. 3
    Barrett1 says:

    Now that (if I may use the vernacular of today’s youth) is off the chain.

  4. 4
    carbon14atom says:

    If I may be allowed, this account of stunning memory brings to the fore a thought that has been bothering me lately. The description of life in the macro being complex and life in the micro as being simple. I know these are traditional and refer to number of cells, organs and complexity of organs, however, it would seem to me that for the number and complexity of organs in an organism, life in macro is becoming relatively simple when compared to life in micro. I do NOT think that a human or monkey or dog or fish is a simple creature, multicelled bodies are sublime and subtle statements of complexity. I just see the simple cell as being and being discovered more and more to not be so simple after all

  5. 5
    Twist says:

    Anyone ever play GURPS?

    Is a roleplaying system where characters are constructed based on a point purchase system. Eidetic Memory was one of the pricier advantages, but gave a great discount on purchasing ranks in intelligence related skills. In a min/max building situation, it was a must buy for anyone who wasn’t going to be a spearchucking primitive.

    Kinda funny to have a special forces squad where everyone had perfect recall. And the WWII Sherman tank crew. And the 17th century pirates. And the 25th century space marines.

    Back to the subject, I have seen eidetic memory referenced in both works of fiction and nonfiction since childhood. Certainly not a common trait, but the article takes the tone that this woman is unique. Remember those crazy folk who get press now and then who rattle of tens of thousands of digits of pi?

  6. 6
    saxe17 says:

    They’re at “the beginning” all right. They can’t even account for memory, much less an abnormal memory. Good luck Romans 1 scientists.

    Saxe

  7. 7
    jimbo says:

    A lot of the statements in that article about “normal memory” are pure speculation. No one knows where memories “are” – no one has ever located one in the brain. But then that’s pretty much par for the course for neuroscience: they see a little electrical activity or blood flow in a few places, and think they have everything figured out. The brain – and it’s relationship to the mind – is if anything more mysterious now than it was 50 years ago.

    Check out this article: http://www.alternativescience.com/no_brainer.htm

  8. 8
    Hamilton says:

    Hmmm. A vast, apparently positive (at least, it would be beneficial under some circumstances) difference in behavior (and presumably structure) observed in an individual, differentiating said individual from her peers. Isn’t this the sort of change ID says you need a designer for? Pity there’s no way to expediently compare her DNA with the average. (at least, not yet)

    Not sure I see how this relates to natural selection (or ID for that matter). Seems like something in her brain went wrong/different, and that’s all there is to it for now. Now, if you observed this change propagating through the population over time, that would be something worth commenting on.

  9. 9
    Mats says:

    Jimbo,

    Interesting article. It reminds me of what I have heard concerning Sir John Eccles’ work regarding the mind and the brain.

  10. 10
    Joseph says:

    Am I the only one who watched Rain Man?

    The word is savant.

    IMHO her “trait” would most likely keep most men away. But that just opens the door to the guys with “traits” that keep most women away…

    (but anyway- get in a fight with any woman you have been around for a long, long time and she will remember dates, times and things you wish were forgotten) LoL!

  11. 11
    Charlie says:

    She is also quite different from savants who have surfaced from time to time with extraordinary abilities in music, art or memory.
    “Some of them can remember every single detail about the particular hobby that they have, such as baseball or calendars or art, but they are very narrow,” he says. McGaugh described one person who could memorize a piece of music instantly, and not forget it, but who “couldn’t make change or couldn’t take a bus because he didn’t know where he was.”
    By contrast, AJ is a ” fully functioning person,” McGaugh says.

    I think they already rejected the “Of course,three minutes to Wapner” hypothesis. 🙂

  12. 12
    Joseph says:

    Just because she is allegedly a “fully functioning person” (whatever that means) does not mean she cannot be a savant. So called “idiot” savants may be more popular but that doesn’t mean a functioning savants can’t also exist. We just choose to call them “whiz kids” and even “egg-heads”…

    On another note- Is she, and others with great memories, the norm and people who can’t retain “memories” the mutants?

  13. 13
    jacktone says:

    Hamilton,
    I’m inclined to speculate that this woman is actually exhibiting a feature that is what should be “normal” and the rest of us have a defect(s) that prevent us from this.

  14. 14
    Charlie says:

    Excellent last two points, Joseph and Jacktone.
    I would hate to have to get into defining “norm” and “normal”, but the point is well-taken,
    And I would be inclined to agree.

  15. 15
    Lurker says:

    I love what Stephen Jones said on his blog about this article. Kinda puts it in perspective for me….

    “…Darwinists compare the highest abilities of apes and the lowest abilities in humans to claim that man is just a “naked ape” or “third chimpanzee,” when if the highest abilities of apes and the highest abilities in humans are compared, then the difference between man and his closest living relatives is analogous to a “kingdom-level `speciation'”

  16. 16
    SuricouRaven says:

    Ive heard of this. Quite facinating… I wonder if this is due to a simple chemical change or something more complicated? If the former, that raises the possibility of some memory-enhancing drugs that actually work. There are some available now, they just arn’t very effective or reliable.

    On the topic of implications for evolution that started this… there isn’t enough evidence to say anything at all. Is this even genetic? If it is, are other functions impaired? The disconnection theory mentioned would suggest that? A brain sorting through more information might be slower than normal. (There is something coming towards me… its big, yellow.. what is big and *agh*… oh, lion. Right. Too late now.) Then it might be bad for relationships, being able to remember every tiny lie a partner has told. So its quite possible a comparatively poor memory is a reproductive advantage. Or not. Insufficient information.

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