There is no known cause for hyperthymesia, although some researchers believe it may be linked to a higher than average level of activity in the brain’s autobiographical memory region. This region is responsible for storing personal memories and is thought to be located in the medial temporal lobe.
For as long as she can remember, 46-year-old Jill Price has had an extraordinary memory. She can remember every day of her life in perfect detail – from what she ate for breakfast on 3rd February 1980, to what she did on holiday in Greece in August 2001.
Price, who lives in Los Angeles, discovered her unique ability in her early twenties when she realised she could remember her 10th birthday party in far greater detail than anyone else she knew. Since then, she has kept a daily diary, documenting her life in minute detail.
While most of us have a few ‘stand-out’ memories from key moments in our lives, Price’s memory is effectively a video recording of her entire life. She can recall not only significant events, but also what she did on any given day, no matter how mundane.
Price’s memory is so vivid that she can even remember what she wore on specific days, and what the weather was like. When asked to recall her first day of school, she not only remembers what she wore (a white blouse, brown corduroy pants and brown loafers), but also what her classmates were wearing, and what was on the blackboard.
While hyperthymesia may sound like a desirable condition – who wouldn’t want to be able to remember every day of their life? – for Price it has been both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, her memory has helped her in her career as a writer; she is able to remember details that other people would struggle to recall. On the other hand, her constant recall of past events can be overwhelming, and she often finds herself living in the past rather than the present.
Price is one of only a handful of people known to have hyperthymesia, or ‘extreme autobiographical memory’. The condition was first identified in 2006 by neuropsychologists James McGaugh and Larry Cahill, after they studied the case of another woman with an exceptional memory, ‘AJ’.
Like Price, AJ could remember almost every day of her life in great detail. When asked to recall her 14th birthday, she not only remembered what she’d eaten for breakfast (pancakes with chocolate chips), but also what she’d eaten for lunch (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and dinner (pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms).
While AJ and Price share the same condition, their memories are stored differently. AJ’s memory is more like a photograph, where she can remember a specific event in great detail, but she struggles to recall the events that led up to it or followed it.
Price, on the other hand, has a more ‘chronological’ memory. She can remember the events leading up to and following a specific event, as well as the event itself.
Researchers believe that there are two types of hyperthymesia: acquired and inherited. Acquired hyperthymesia is thought to be the result of brain damage, while inherited hyperthymesia is believed to be a genetic condition.
Price’s case appears to be inherited, as her mother also has a very good memory. However, it is not known whether her mother’s memory is as good as her daughter’s.
While hyperthymesia is a relatively rare condition, it is not the only memory disorder to have been identified. Another condition, known as ‘superior autobiographical memory’ (SAM), was discovered in the early 2000s.
Unlike hyperthymesia, SAM is not associated with a detailed memory of everyday events. Instead, people with SAM have a ‘superior’ memory for specific events from their own lives.
For example, someone with SAM might be able to remember where they were and what they were doing on the day of a significant event, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, they would not be able to remember the events of every day leading up to that event, as people with hyperthymesia can.
It is not known how many people have SAM, but it is thought to be less common than hyperthymesia.
While the cause of hyperthymesia is unknown, some researchers believe it may be linked to a higher than average level of activity in the brain’s autobio