If you’ve ever lamented the slow fade of treasured memories, consider Jill Price a cautionary tale.
Price remembers every day of her life from age 14 with encyclopedia clarity and can tick off the details by date.
“Today is May 9,” she said recently, “and I can tell you that 27 years ago I went on my first date, and it was a Saturday. And May 9 the next year I was in a dance marathon and I could barely walk that night. I see it — yep — I see the whole day. And I can feel it. I get the warm-fuzzies.”
It sounds delightful until you hear the flip side.
Price’s brain also swirls with every childhood trauma, every hurtful argument, every embarrassment, every loss — all as fresh and emotional as the day they happened.
She is, in a real sense, haunted by her past and she has the emotional scars, including youthful bouts of depression, to prove it.
“I’ve been through hell in my life,” she said.
Price, 42, has the first diagnosed case of hyperthymestic syndrome, a term that was coined after researchers at the University of California-Irvine began studying the Los Angeles woman eight years ago.
They published her case in the scientific journal Neurocase two years ago, identifying her as “AJ” to protect her anonymity.
Price said she came forward in hopes her unusual memory will help researchers unlock the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. Now, with writer Bart Davis, she tells her story in a memoir titled “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” (Free Press, $26), which became a media sensation the moment it hit the shelves.
History has turned up other cases of remarkable memory, from autistic savants who can recite the phone book to “S,” a Russian journalist-turned entertainer whose feats of memory were studied for 30 years by psychologist Alexander Luria.
Price is different. Her memories are spontaneous and autobiographical. Give her a date, and she’ll tell you what day of the week it fell on, what she did that day and what else was happening in the world, as long as she was aware of it at the time. Likewise, give her an event and she’ll tell you when it occurred.
Yet Price has below-average memorization skills — don’t ask her to recite a poem or a math theorem — and like most of us she relies on shopping lists and Post-It notes to jog her memory.
“When I first went to the doctors,” Price said, “they were like, ‘Oh, you must have been really good in school.’ I went, ‘Nope.’ In fact, I hated school. School was very painful for me.”
Much of Price’s life has been painful.
Her father was a show-business agent whose clients included Ray Charles and Muppeteer Jim Henson.
Her mother was a former member of the June Taylor Dancers who, as the memoir describes, subjected her young daughter to excruciating pressure over food and weight.
“If you eat anything bad,” went the maternal refrain, “I’m going to die.”
The pivotal trauma of Price’s childhood was moving to Los Angeles at age 8 — being wrenched from her beloved home in New Jersey.
“I really loved my life there,” she said. “I should have been born, lived and died in the same house. That’s how much I don’t like change.”
Price believes the trauma of the move somehow pushed her memory into overdrive. Her abilities took great leaps at age 11 and again at 14, when her day-by-day recall solidified.
Those gains, though extreme, coincided with a normal developmental stage called the “memory bump,” the period between ages 10 and 30 when memories are most vivid and identity takes shape. As her spontaneous recall grew out of control, Price kept meticulous journals — more than 50,000 pages of notes — to corral her runaway memories.
“It’s all swirling and kind of in the front of my head,” she said, “because it’s not written down. As soon as I write it down, it kind of relaxes everything.”
Price said the UC team, which now includes two researchers from Harvard, doesn’t know how to account for her unusual memory. They speculated her brain might have structural features that prevent her from turning off “episodic retrieval,” the recall of life events.
MRIs conducted in 2006 revealed that more than two dozen areas in Price’s brain are larger than normal. What it means is still an open question.
“They are really at the beginning of this,” Price said. “I think they’re just kind of blown away, still. I know they want to follow me throughout my life.”
The research has been empowering to Price, who often has felt lonely and misunderstood. In the midst of the studies, at age 37, her life took a joyful turn when she found and married a soul mate she met in an online chat room.
“He balanced me and he ‘got’ me,” she said, “and that was why I loved him so much.”
But Price and her husband, Jim, had only a short time together after their 2003 marriage. He died, at age 42, of a massive stroke, after lingering six days on life support.
For most of us, time heals. But not for Price.
“It’s still as devastating and raw and right in-the-moment as it was three years ago,” she said. “I cry, still, five or 10 times a day. I will always be devastated.”
Price now lives with her parents and runs a school at a synagogue as she tries to heal her anger at God. “I’m not at peace,” she said, her voice terse and flat.
Yet, for all the grief wrought by her prodigious memory, Price said she would never trade it for the “foggy, splotchy way” most of us recall our life stories. The thought of losing such a vital part of her identity fills her with horror.
“God, no,” she said. “I have, like, a very animated, vivid movie going on in my head, and that’s the part that is the good part of this.”
RESEARCH FINDINGS WORTH REMEMBERING
Jill Price suffers from being the woman who can’t forget, but most of us worry we forget too much. Which is why Sue Halpern, cell phone to ear, was hiking the streets of Manhattan fielding questions about memory research.
She could have taken a cab — was going to take a cab — until she remembered the most crucial finding from her five years tracking cutting-edge memory studies: Aerobic exercise causes the brain to grow new cells in the dentate gyrus — the very part of the hippocampus that degrades with normal, age-related memory loss (and the only area of the brain, apart from the olfactory center, that can grow new cells). What’s more, people who exercised had higher cognitive scores and lower rates of dementia.
Walk more, remember more. So Halpern, 53, was making tracks.
“The exercise piece is phenomenal,” she said. “Ultimately it’s something that’s available to almost all of us and it doesn’t require a co-pay.”
Halpern, scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, shadowed leading neuroscientists — and even made herself a guinea pig — to learn about the elusive nature of memory.
She appeared at Town Hall Seattle last week to talk about her book, “Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research” (Harmony Books, $24).
By phone she discussed some key findings:
- Researchers are homing in on molecular differences between normal memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, “which is important because the closer you get to the source of a problem, the easier it will be to make a fix.”
- Biomarkers in blood and spinal fluid that appear to predict Alzheimer’s years in advance are being tested and developed for the marketplace. Once drugs are available — and Halpern believes it won’t be many more years — people can begin treatment before symptoms emerge.
- Crossword puzzles, sudoku and online “brain gyms” don’t appear to protect against dementia or age-related memory loss. A possible exception is the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program being studied by the Mayo Clinic and the University of Southern California. It uses tonal variations to train hearing and focus attention, which tends to grow distractible with age. Early results showed the eight-week program enabled participants to perform, on average, as if they were 10 years younger.
- Active, educated people with high verbal fluency tend to fare better in old age, possibly because they have extra reserves of neural pathways.
- Social stimulation is just as important as mental stimulation. “You’d probably do better going to church (or some other social outlet) than you would sitting in your room doing a crossword puzzle.”
- Researchers who followed nearly 500 people for 21 years found that ballroom dancing was the most protective leisure activity and appeared to reduce dementia risk by 76 percent. (Solving crosswords was one of the least protective.) Ballroom dancing combines aerobic, social and spatial challenges. But it may attract people who are at low risk of dementia anyway.
- Eating blueberries promotes brain-cell growth and better performance — in rats. It has yet to be proved in humans.