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People Can Recall a Lifetime of Detailed Memories


If memories were stored in the brain, we would expect some limitation on the amount and quality of the memories. All storage devices have limitations from the size and nature of the device. The brain should be no different.

However, savants seem to have no ceiling on the amount of memory they can recall. Kim Peek (see Chapter 1) knows 7,600 books, word for word, from memory, and recalls 98% of what he reads. People without disabilities have also been able to recall an almost limitless number of details from their lifetimes. Brad Williams and a woman who wishes to be known only as A.J. are examples. Their cases follow.


Brad Williams: Recalling a Lifetime of Trifling Details

Give him any date and Brad Williams can start a stream of details about what happened on that day in his life. Asked what happened on August 18, 1965, when he was 8 years old, the 51-year-old Brad recalled it was a Wednesday and he was with his family when they stopped at Red Barn Hamburger during a road trip through Michigan; he had a hamburger; they stayed at a motel that night in Clare, Michigan. It seemed more like a cabin.

Name a date from the last 40 years and, after a few moments, he can typically tell you what he did that day and what was in the news. When asked about November 7, 1991, as a test, he said “Let’s see. That would be around when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV. Yes, a Thursday. There was a big snowstorm here the week before.” The interviewer asked him about 20 other dates associated with historical events. He recalled all the events on those dates, including the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978, the toxic-gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in tennis’ “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973.

“I’ve always been this way,” Williams said. “Growing up, I never really had reason to think I wasn’t like everyone else.”

Dr. James McGaugh, research neurobiologist at the University of California, studied Williams. When asked how he does it, McGaugh replied, “You want the Nobel Prize right now? Tell me that answer and I’ll publish it. We don’t know. We do know that he carries this information with him, that it’s detailed, that it’s just there. That’s what we want to know — why is it there?”

The implied question is "Why is the memory in the brain?" As long as researchers keep asking that question, they won't find an explanation. The phenomenon exists because memories aren't confined to the brain.

- Scientists study man's amazing memory. (2008, February 22). MSNBC. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23296808/.


A.J.: Nonstop, Detailed Memories from Any Point in Her Life

Dr. McGaugh, published a case study of a person similar to Brad Williams in the journal Neurocase in 2006. That woman, calling herself A.J. to protect her privacy, was in her mid-40's. When she hears a date from previous years, memories from that date flood her mind like a movie: “nonstop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!” McGaugh found that, given any date, she nearly flawlessly recalled the day of the week and what she did. When the details were checked against diaries she had written decades before, McGaugh found that what she recalled matched perfectly. Scientific literature documents people who could memorize a series of 50 to 100 random letters or digits. Another person read a 330-word story twice, then reproduced it nearly verbatim a year later.

She appears to be able to pull the memories out of a vast storehouse and recall any of them at will. The brain doesn't have the capacity to do that. - Scientists study man's amazing memory. (2008, February 22). MSNBC. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23296808/.





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