Can you imagine remembering almost every moment in your life, like it just happened? I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but Jill Price can remember what she had for breakfast twenty years ago. Many of us live pretty chaotic lives, and our brains filter out what is important, and we tend to forget about less significant things.
Jill Price can remember almost every day of her life in clear detail. This psychological phenomenon is shared by just 60-100 people in the world population and can really take a toll on your daily life. Jill explained her experience as difficult because she can’t turn her memory off. It is like memories are always playing back in her brain, making it more difficult for her to concentrate or clear her mind.
This is her incredible story.
Jill Price was born in New York City on December 30, 1955, but she had a very special gift (or curse… depending on how you look at it). Her earliest memories start at 18-months old. She lived in an apartment near Roosevelt Hospital in Midtown Manhattan and remembers the sounds of ambulance sirens and traffic. She also recalls climbing on her living room couch and looking down 9th Avenue from her window.
When she was just five years and three months old, her father, mother, brother, and talent agent William Morris moved to South Orange, New Jersey. They lived in a red, brick colonial three-story home with a huge backyard and lots of trees. Certainly, the type of place you would leave the city for, and Jill loved it.
When she turned seven, Jill’s dad got an incredible job offer with Columbia Pictures Television, but it was in Los Angeles. He spent a year going back and forth from New Jersey to California, but in Spring of 1974, the whole family moved out there.
By July 1, 1974, when Jill was just eight and a half years old, they were renting a house in Los Angeles. Jill says that was the day her brain snapped. She always had a pretty good memory and always hated change. Knowing that nothing would be the same after leaving New Jersey, she consciously tried to remember the world that was being ripped away from her.
Jill took pictures, made lists, and kept every artifact, every passed note, and ticket stub. This was her way to train her memory, but it worked way better than she had ever imagined. Jill Price was the first person to ever be diagnosed with what is now known as HSAM (highly superior autobiographical memory), a rare condition that only 60 people in the world share.
She can clearly remember the days of her life in sharp detail. She is now 51 years old but can remember every day of the week for every date since 1980. She can remember where she was, who she was with, and what she was doing every single day. She can easily recall a memory from 20 years ago the same way she remembers two days ago. But her memories are also triggered involuntarily.
She said it’s like living with a split screen: The left side is the present, and the right side is constantly rolling memories, each one triggered by the appearance of present-day stimuli. But Price said all these memories in her brain drive her insane.
I mean, virtually anything she sees can potentially spark memories, and she doesn’t forget things. Most people call it a gift, but Jill sees it as a burden: “I run my entire life through my head every day, and it drives me crazy.
Before Jill Price, HSAM was an unknown condition. Jill sent an email to Dr. James McGaugh on June 8, 2000. That day was a Thursday, and Jill was 34 years and five months old. Dr. McGaugh remembers that day too.
He was the director of UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the time, the research institute that he founded in 1983. In her email, Jill expressed that she had a problem with her memory. Dr. McGaugh immediately responded, explaining that he works at a research institute, not a clinic. He offered to direct her to someone who could help her.
Jill’s reply was unexpected, to say the least: “Whenever I see a date flash on the television (or anywhere else for that matter), I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on and on and on. It is non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting… most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day, and it drives me crazy!!!”
Dr. McGaugh was a little skeptical but also intrigued. He invited her to come to speak to him at his office.
On Saturday, June 24, 2000, Price woke up “so, so, so excited.” She watched Apple’s Way, a short-lived television series from the 1970s being re-run on TV, and for the first time in a while, she felt relaxed.
She asked her dad if he thought she should take all of her diaries with her, the ones she had been keeping since Monday, August 24, 1981. He told her not to take all of them, afraid she would freak him out. She packed a bag with just six years’ worth of journals, put them in her car, and headed off to her meeting with McGaugh.
She drove an hour to meet McGaugh outside the Qureshey Research Building on the UC Irvine campus. It was a pretty cloudy day for Southern California. She was still so excited as they walked up to his office on the second floor.
For Christmas one year earlier, McGaugh got a coffee-table book titled 20th Century Day by Day, which included photographs and short accounts of the biggest news stories in the last 100 years. In order to test her memory, McGaugh and his assistant used the book to come up with a few questions.
The idea was that if Jill Price really had this amazing memory, she would be able to answer these questions. They started with 1974 when Jill’s remarkable memory really started. She was sitting across from McGaugh when he asked, “When did the Iranian hostage crisis begin?”
She answered, “November 4, 1979.” Dr. McGraugh said that she was incorrect, and it took place on November 5, 1979. She insisted that it was on November 4. He checked another source and was surprised to see that Jill was right, and the book was wrong.
The rest of her responses came just as quickly, confidently, and correctly. When she was asked what day the Los Angeles police beat taxi driver Rodney King, she immediately answered Sunday, March 3, 1991. But it works both ways. When she was asked what happened on August 16, 1977, she answered that Elvis Presley died in his Graceland bathroom. It was a Tuesday.
When did Bing Crosby die? Jill answered Friday, October 14, 1997, on a golf course in Spain. She remembered hearing it on the radio when her mom drove her to soccer practice. Dr. McGaugh spent decades studying and researching memory, but he had never seen or even heard of a case like this.
After they finished eating lunch, Jill said goodbye to McGaugh and said he stood on the curb outside, “literally scratching his head.” On the way back, Jill felt a little disappointed: “I came home, and I was kind of annoyed, and my dad said, ‘what did you expect, you’d get an answer?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Yea! And I thought I’d get a pill for it, too!’”
Unfortunately, nobody had heard of her condition at the time since Jill Price was the first individual to ever be diagnosed with HSAM.
Dr. McGaugh is a huge name in memory research. His office at UC Irvine is located across a courtyard from another building, McGaugh Hall, named after him. He has written more than 550 papers and books, mainly about how we form long-term memories.
Back in 2015, he won a Gawemeyer award, a huge accomplishment in the crowded Psychology field that comes with a prize of $100,000 for his contribution to understanding memory and emotion. He keeps the small plaque on his desk. He has countless impressive and remarkable things on his resume.
Dr. McGaugh started studying memory in the 1950s, but he is now 85 and getting ready for retirement. By the time Jill contacted him, his research had shown that the more emotionally provocative an experience is, the more likely the neurobiological systems involved in making memory will ensure that you remember it.
When something slightly stimulating happens, positive or negative, it releases adrenal stress hormones, which activate the amygdala. The amygdala then projects to other brain regions that whatever just happened is important and needs to be remembered. According to McGaugh, this is how our memory strength is controlled.
Dr. McGaugh spent most of his career studying strongly formed memories, and Jill seemed to have the strongest memories he had ever come across. His earlier work changed how we understand the mechanisms of memory, but his fascination will Jill was about more than just understanding her incredible recollection abilities.
He thought that we could learn something new about how we make and store memories from her unique condition. “The big pay-off on this,” he said, “is understanding how memory works.” However, he started from a very skeptical position.
“In interrogating her, I started with the scientific assumption that she couldn’t do it,” Dr. McGaugh admitted. And even once Jill showed McGaugh what she could do, he was unmoved. “Yeah, it got my attention, but I didn’t say, ‘wow.’ We had to do a lot more. So, we did a lot more.”
After meeting Jill Price, McGaugh got a team ready to determine the depth of her memory. Neuropsychologist Elizabeth Parker mapped out Jill’s ability to learn and remember, and neurobiologist Larry Cahill helped analyze the results.
Throughout the next five years, Jill was given a bunch of standardized memory, IQ, and learning tests, along with a series of specially devised tests. For example, they asked Jill (who is Jewish) to write down the date of each Easter from 1980 to 2003. She only got one wrong (and she was off by just two days). Jill was also able to recall what she did on those days.
When she was asked to do the same exercise again two years later, not only did she correct the date that she got wrong, but she also remembered the same personal details (such as, April 17, 1987: “vomit up carrots;” April 12, 1988: “the house smells like ham”).
Confirming whether or not autobiographical memories are accurate is a little tricky, but McGaugh said, “fortunately, she kept a diary.” She started recording the details of her life on August 24, 1980, during a teenage romance she wanted to remember.
She would make at least one entry every single day, referencing important details of the day. Her journals were kept on pretty much anything she could write on: calendars, typing paper held together with binder clips, notebooks, index cards, and even the wallpaper in her childhood bedroom.
For Jill, writing down her memories meant they were a “real” record of her life and memories. Jill even said that when she dies, she wants her journals to either be buried with her or blown up in the desert. The journals were used as a way to organize her thoughts and calm down the chaos in his head.
Jill said that she doesn’t re-read her journals, and no matter which random dates the researchers threw at her, there is no reason to assume she could have prepared for the questions. The researchers cross-referenced her answers with what was written in her diary. In some cases, they were able to confirm memories with her mother.
As time passed, it was evident that Jill’s autobiographical memory was potentially unprecedented. But when it came to remembering things that had no connection to her personally, Price was just about average. She was able to recall the date the Iran hostage crisis began because on the day it happened, the self-described “news junkie” made it part of her personal narrative.
She said that school was “torture” for her. She couldn’t remember facts or figures, but she did incredibly well at television trivia from her nostalgia years: the ‘60s and ‘70s. When it came to other things, if they didn’t relate to her interests, she forgot about them.
One time, Jill was asked to close her eyes and recall what her two interviewers were wearing (after spending all day with them), and she couldn’t remember. When she was asked to look at random numbers and memorize them in order, she laughed, saying it would be impossible.
It turns out her memory is just as selective as mine and yours. She stores things that she finds important. She is just better than most at retaining and retrieving those memories. It seems like she was way better at recalling things that happened, as opposed to background details like the clothes someone else was wearing.
There wasn’t much science or literature about superior forms of memory and nothing close to the case of Jill Price. A lot of what did exist had to do with individuals who were able to memorize the symbol pi out to 22,514 decimal places or remember the order of a shuffled deck of cards.
The scientific consensus about these abilities was that they came from practice and acquired skill, more of a strategy than an innate ability. Also, other people who are able to name the day of the week for any given date are also able to do it for days before they were born and is more common with autistic people.
Jill is unable to do that. She probably can’t recall things outside of her lifetime because they wouldn’t necessarily be a memory. However, as far as the UCI team could tell, there was nobody else who had Jill’s incredible ability to automatically recall her personal memories.
On August 13, 2003, three years after they began conducting research on Jill’s memory, McGaugh, Parker, and Cahill presented their initial findings on Jill Price’s memory to the UCI medical community in an open forum. Price was invited to show off her remarkable memory.
Jill Price exhibited her memory and showed how she could “see” dates and memories in her mind, pretty much all the time. She also tried to explain how she conceives time: In her head, each year is like a circle, with January in the 11 o’clock position and the months progressing in a counterclockwise motion.
She was understandably nervous about speaking to such a large audience, especially with doctors in the crowd; she was afraid of doctors. But she was finally beginning to see the “bigger picture” reason for her suffering: scientific progress.
Two years later, the researchers at UCI asked Jill to read a draft of the paper they had written about her before they submitted it. In the story, they described Jill as both the “warden and prisoner” of her memories. It sounds like a superpower, but it’s not all great.
“I thought, God, if I didn’t know better, it sounds like this person has brain damage or something,” Jill said of AJ, the pseudonym they used to for her. “I cried. I wept while I read it. Someone had finally heard me. because I’ve spent my whole life screaming at the top of my lungs, and nobody has heard anything.”
In February 2006, “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering” was published in the neuropsychology journal Neurocase. “We made the mistake of calling it ‘hyperthymesia,’” from the Greek thymesis, remembering – “which was a terrible idea because when you name it in that way, it sounds as if you know what it is,” Dr. McGaugh confessed.
In reality, all they had was Jill Price. She was the data point of much of the description, and there are no clear understandings of the mechanisms behind her memory. However, what they were about to get were more special people, just like Jill Price.
Jill remembers March 12, 2006, being a very important day: “That was the last day that my life was my own,” she admitted. The first newspaper article about “hyperthymesia” came out the following morning in the Orange County Register. Dr. McGaugh’s assistant had been contacted by more than five media outlets that wanted to interview Jill Price in just one day.
A month later, the university was receiving so many calls that she was asked to hire a publicist to deal with all the requests. At the time, Prince was still known as AJ and acted as her own publicist: “I had control over what was happening. For a year, nobody knew they were talking to me,” she explained. “It was really quite hysterical.”
Almost immediately, Dr. McGaugh’s office was flooded with emails from people who felt like they had the condition or knew someone who did. One particular email pointed out that scientists at UC Irvine weren’t the first to come across someone with this kind of memory.
An article in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy described the curious case of Daniel McCartney in an 1871 article. At the time, McCartney was a 54-year-old man living in Ohio who was able to remember the day of the week, the weather, and exactly what he was doing on any given date since January 1, 1827, when he was just nine years and four months old.
McGaugh’s lab was contacted by several people who were put through the first round of vetting by his assistant as potential candidates before going through the same public events tests that Jill initially had to take.
That’s when a second person was verified as having the condition: Wisconsin radio announcer Brad Williams, whose brother contacted Dr. McGaugh in 2007 after seeing the article about the UCI research. The third was Rick Baron, whose sister read about “AJ” online and realized she had a very similar memory to her brother. The subjects who had HSAM turned out to be much better at recalling long-part autobiographical data than someone with average memory.
The fourth person to be diagnosed with HSAM was a standup comedian turned writer and TV producer (for reality shows like The Deadliest Catch), Bob Petrella. Since he was a youngster, he knew his memory wasn’t the same as everyone else’s, but he also never thought of it as “unusual.”
According to Petrella, “I just thought it was like being a redhead or being left-handed,” he explained. Once he was aware of the condition, he understood that his memory is a real gift that is extremely rare. In fact, there are only 60-100 people in the world who are diagnosed with the condition.
Actress Marilu Henner, whom you may remember as Elaine Nardo from the hit sitcom Taxi, also has HSAM. She looks at the condition as a blessing. She lived such an interesting Hollywood life and gets to remember every single day of it.
Unfortunately, Jill Price doesn’t look at it the same way. The problem with a perfect memory is that you can’t forget. The reason why we heal after a loss or heartbreak is that our brains start to forget in order to allow us to move on. Jill isn’t able to do that. Imagine if you could remember every hurtful thing that happened to you as if it just happened.