What if you could remember, in detail, nearly every day of your life?
My brother Brad can.
Mention the date May 15, 1972, and Brad will tell you it was the day Governor George Wallace was shot by an attempted assassin. It was also the second night of the high-school production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown", in which Brad played Linus. Oh, Brad also played tennis in gym class that day.
And, if you're curious, he'll let you know it was a Monday.
Ask Brad when the sitcom "I Dream Of Jeannie" premiered and he'll immediately inform you September 18, 1965 -- faster than you could consult the IMDB. (By the way, that was a Saturday.)
Brad's remarkable mind has always been a given in our family. Brad taught himself to read at the age of two. He represented Wisconsin in the National Spelling Bee at the age of twelve (and the height of four-foot-five). And over time, we realized that he could remember when things happened with remarkable clarity, to the point where double-checking against Brad became pointless. He simply was always right.
We never thought to explore further.
On March 27, 2006 (that was a Monday), a link on The Huffington Post led me to an ABC News article headlined: "Woman With Perfect Memory Baffles Scientists- Patient Remembers Every Day and Almost Every Detail of Her Life"
The story told of a woman code-named "AJ" whom neurology researchers at the University of California-Irvine had been studying for six years. She exhibited precisely the same sort of memory as Brad for dates and events, both monumental and trivial, global and personal. Although savants and calendar-calculators had been documented, nowhere in the scientific literature was there an example of someone with such a wealth and specificity of autobiographical memory. The researchers had even coined a name for this previously undiagnosed phenomenon: hyperthymesia.
To their knowledge, AJ's abilities were unique.
I immediately contacted Dr. James McGaugh at Irvine to tell him there was at least one more.
On June 5, 2006 (that was a Monday), Brad and I journeyed to Irvine, where Dr. McGaugh and his colleague, Dr. Larry Cahill, quizzed Brad. They mentioned historical events -- everything from the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the death of John Wayne -- and Brad told them when they occurred. The doctors would cite historical dates and, aside from a couple obscure plane crashes, Brad identified what made each date famous. Thanks to information that I had surreptitiously provided to the doctors along with our other brother Greg, they were able to ask Brad about events from his personal life. Nothing stumped him.
At the end of a 40-minute grilling, Dr. McGaugh, who had been stifling a smile throughout, told us that Brad did indeed show all the qualities they had studied in AJ. As I'm fond of saying, at that moment Brad became the Buzz Aldrin of hyperthymesia.
As a screenwriter who had toyed with the notion of making a documentary, I knew immediately that the ideal subject matter was sitting right in front of me. We'd all like to think that we're one-in-a-billion, but how often are you told that someone you've known your entire life actually IS one-in-a-billion?
I've chronicled Brad's travels on the hyperthymesia highway in my work-in-progress documentary titled Unforgettable. So far, these adventures have led from family reunions and Scrabble tournaments to a tavern in Seattle where Brad went head-to-head with "Jeopardy!" uber-champion Ken Jennings in Buzztime satellite trivia. I've documented the invasion of our mother's living room by an NBC News crew and the examination of the inside of Brad's skull by the UC-Irvine's MRI machine. Brad has been profiled by his local newspaper, the LaCrosse Tribune, received mention in Newsweek and is the subject of a lengthy article in yesterday's New Jersey Star-Ledger.
It's extremely likely that other folks with "hyper-memory" are out there, still undiscovered. The doctors at Irvine have promising leads on at least a couple more. One reason we'd never thought Brad's ability could be all THAT unusual is that we had seen actress Marilu Henner on talk shows demonstrating her own similarly uncanny recall for dates and events. More recently, Anthony Hopkins was quoted as saying he can "work out what dates fell on what days through the ages," but admitting, "I don't use the talent because I don't need it."
And that has been Brad's frustration. Sure, it's a curiosity, a parlor-trick to be demonstrated to tour groups passing through the radio station where he works, a reason not to be invited a second time to Trivial Pursuit parties back in the '80s. But is there any practical use for an astoundingly rich memory like his in an age when Google and Wikipedia are as handy as the nearest iPhone?
Thanks to "Rain Man", everyone's first suggestion upon learning of Brad's skill is that he should learn to count cards in blackjack. He did make the ultimate geek-Hajj, becoming a contestant on "Jeopardy!", but a category about snakes and a returning champion who was just untouchable enough by the time of Final Jeopardy meant that Brad walked away with merely a trip to Boston and a consolation package of Paul Mitchell hair-care products and Klondike bars. The upcoming Dennis-Miller-hosted quiz show, "Amne$ia", in which contestants are questioned about the events of their own lives, would seem tailor-made for Brad, unless he's considered such a ringer that the producers issue a restraining order banning him from even applying to become a contestant.
To be sure, Brad doesn't remember everything. Like most of us, his memories are sketchy before the age of four or five - as if we have a "baby brain" that falls out like baby teeth. He can't remember something he never learned in the first place, and he's unlikely to remember facts on topics that don't interest him. During the "Stump Brad" segment on his radio station, questions about sports aren't allowed, although Brad could probably tell you when and where every Super Bowl was played, and which teams competed, and who won. He'll do better on questions about who received an Oscar in 1968 or who was crowned Miss America in 1974 than who won a Grammy last year.
Brad can't really describe how his brain does what it does, any more than you or I could describe how we know what color something is or how something tastes. While AJ was perturbed enough by her condition to seek help from the Irvine researchers, Brad doesn't seem bothered by this constant recollection. It's simply how his memory has always functioned and it surprises him that the rest of our minds don't work the same way.
As a layman suddenly immersed in this subject matter, my hunch is that most of us have just as much information stored in our heads as Brad. When Brad dredges up some obscure event from our mutual history, he can usually provide enough details that the story eventually "rings a bell", so somewhere in my grey matter, I've got those same nuggets squirrelled away. It's just that mortals like you and me can't typically retrieve them with ease. The exception seems to be when those minute details are linked with a dramatic, emotional event like a birth or a wedding or a death. We can all remember precise details about where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. Well, for Brad, it's more like every day is 9/11.
The broader importance of studying brains like Brad's will be if, in trying to discover what makes him so special, scientists find ways to combat the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and other memory-robbing afflictions. The last frontier of human knowledge may not be in the vast reaches of outer space. The greatest uncharted territory could be that mysterious realm which each of us carries inside our own head.
Perhaps Brad's memory can help provide answers to some of science's most perplexing questions. If so, this voyage of discovery we're on would truly be...
Um...what was the name of my documentary again
Follow Eric Williams on Twitter: www.twitter.com/EricWilliams1