Known to most people as the star of TV series like “Taxi” and “Evening Shade” and the author of self-help books about health, diet, and lifestyle, Marilu Henner has a more unusual claim to fame, one that puts her in a very elite minority: She is one of a handful of people confirmed to have “highly superior autobiographical memory” — the unique ability to be able to recall what happened on any day of one’s life.
Henner knows the month, day, and year of every event that has happened in her lifetime, from major news events to minor personal incidents, like the fact that she broke her wrist in a revolving door on Sunday, May 6, 1973. If you tell her your birth date, she’ll tell you the day of the week you were born. “It’s just something I’ve been able to do my whole life. It’s just there,” says Henner, who became aware of her ability at age 6. “It’s like a DVD menu or a hard drive — everything is there.”
One of a handful of subjects profiled in a “60 Minutes” story on the subject, Henner was invited to participate by her friend Lesley Stahl, who realized that the actress had the same power of recall as another interviewee, violinist Louise Owen. Dr. James McGaugh, a professor and research scientist at the Department of Neurobiology and Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, has studied the phenomenon since 2000, published a paper on it six years later, and has tested and confirmed the eight others who’ve come forward since. At the moment, there are 10 additional subjects undergoing testing.
MRI tests indicate that the temporal lobes and caudate nuclei in these subjects’ brains “are significantly larger than those of people who do not have this ability,” says McGaugh, but the cause remains unknown. “Is the region larger because they were born with it and it plays some role in their memory, or is it because they’ve exercised their memory causing this region of the brain to grow larger? We don’t have an answer to that question. We don’t know whether the subjects were born with this or it’s an ability that was acquired later on,” he says, noting that they are in collaboration with other scientists doing genetic analyses on saliva samples.
The first step, however, is testing subjects’ memory of news events such as the dates of Princess Diana’s death, the Challenger disaster, the winner of the 2006 Super Bowl and the airdate of the “M*A*S*H” finale. Most people, like the 400 or so who contacted McGaugh after the “60 Minutes” program aired, fail and are eliminated at that stage. Henner got every question correct. Next, subjects are tested for their memory of things that happened to them that can be corroborated by a source such as a diary or notebook and given additional memory tests. “At the same time, we’re testing control subjects of the same sex and age for comparison.” Henner, who continues to undergo testing, has at times felt like a lab rat but is fine with it — “As long as they don’t give me cheese!” laughs the longtime vegan.
McGaugh has heard from a couple dozen parents who believe that their children may have highly superior autobiographical memory, but he has yet to test them. “Ideally, we should, because it would help answer the question of whether this is something that develops early on in life. It’s a big job to study the adults, so we haven’t decided whether to take that on,” he says. Henner thinks that Joey, the younger of her two sons, may have the ability. McGaugh points out that it could be evidence of heredity or the influence of a mother who’s devoted to remembering. “We just don’t know.”
McGaugh’s original subject was troubled by her ability to forget unpleasant occurrences in her life. But most, including Henner, are happy to have it. Their biggest challenge “is dealing with the rest of us. They don’t understand why we can’t do what they do,” he says. He does believe that the average person can improve memory ability via simple mnemonic devices such as creating a mental picture, assigning a rhyming word, like shoe for the number two, and visualizing it. “Anyone can learn how to do that.” Henner agrees. She has taught online classes about memory and is working on a book due out in September that she says will help people improve their recall.
Might studying the brains of people with highly superior autobiographical memory lead to breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease research? McGaugh is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a low probability with the possibility of a high payoff,” he says, citing the study of an epilepsy patient that yielded important findings. “The medial temporal lobe of his brain, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and cortical tissue, was removed to relieve seizures. Afterward, his recent memory, long-term memory, and language were intact and he could learn new motor skills, but he couldn’t learn any new factual information about the world … We learned that this region of the brain is very important in formation of new information, and it changed the nature of research because the hippocampus is one of the first areas attacked in Alzheimer’s.”
Henner is aware of the implications that her unusual gift might have and is willing to do whatever she can to help in the name of scientific research. When she announced to her family that she plans to donate her brain to science, her brother said, “Come on, do you really want to be lying on the table and have someone say, ‘Hey, that’s Elaine from ‘Taxi?’ ”
“But really,” says Henner, “I’ll do anything that can help.” She accepts the fact that her ability eclipses her other accomplishments. After “60 Minutes” aired, “They told me, ‘You’re known for sitcoms, you’re known for health, but this will be what defines you for the rest of your life.”
This article is from the Summer 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.
- All in Your Head? Why Some Memories Last a Lifetime
- The Art of Remembering Everything: A Q&A with Memory Champion Joshua Foer
- Know Your Brain: How Trauma Affects Memory
- Learning and Memory: How Do We Remember and Why Do We Often Forget?
- Not-So-Total Recall: The Elusive Story Behind What We Remember and Forget
- 30 Ways to Improve Your Memory