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Eric Williams

Eric Williams

Posted: March 18, 2010 03:10 PM

The Unforgettable Adventures of "The Human Google"

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Four years ago this month, the Huffington Post changed my life. And my brother's.

In March, 2006, I spotted a link on the main page of HuffPost that 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

As I read about the woman (code-named "AJ") and her tremendous recall of such minutiae as what she ate or what she read in the news or what she watched on TV on any given day, I was amazed. Not because such a memory -- which the researchers had dubbed "hyperthymesia" -- was beyond my comprehension, but because I'd known someone with precisely that sort of memory my entire life.

My brother, Brad.

Brad's recall of the facts of his life is so encyclopedic and effortless that, in our family, it has always been easier to shout for Brad's assistance or call him on the phone than to struggle to pry the answer from our own feeble memory banks. His friends and his radio-station colleagues also found that yelling "Brad!" was simpler than looking up a fact yourself, especially in those dimly-remembered, primitive days before Google.

Although we had never encountered anyone in person with a Brad-like brain, we never imagined that his type of memory could be all that rare or was worthy of serious scientific study. For one thing, we had seen the actress Marilu Henner on talk shows, demonstrating her own facility for recalling the events of her life, day by day. If she was out there, we thought surely there must be many, many more.

We contacted the researchers at the University of California - Irvine and, upon meeting and quizzing Brad, they determined that Brad's memory was sufficiently like AJ's to merit further study. Hyperthymestic #2 was born.

As a screenwriter trapped in a frustrating rut referred to in Hollywood as "being a screenwriter," and inspired by the brilliance of Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch's "Spellbound," I had previously toyed with the idea of making a documentary about ... something. Finding that "something" proved elusive. I did have preliminary discussions about making a music documentary on a singer/songwriter who I was wild about, but I just couldn't see how I could do it without going broke. Now I had been handed a topic with which I was intimately familiar and a main character to whom I had exclusive access -- as long as Brad didn't ditch me for a more seasoned documentarian.

If the central adage about writing is "write what you know," clearly this was a case of "shoot who you know."

When my camera and sound crew (me) began to follow Brad in the summer of 2006, we had no idea what, if anything, would happen. I might end up with nothing more than a pricey home-movie, but it was a leap I had to make, even if I destroyed my savings and my credit rating in the process. (I did.)

Luckily, public interest in the UC-Irvine studies remained high and, because AJ was declining interview requests, Brad became the default face of the syndrome -- the Buzz Aldrin of hyperthymesia, if you will. He wasn't the first, but he was the one you could get.

Throughout 2008, Brad's "year of living memorably", I tailed him cross-country, starting with a January appearance on "Good Morning America" on which he was dubbed "the Human Google," a catchy moniker which clung to him through subsequent media appearances. Magazines, newspapers, and TV stations all beckoned. A CNN piece on Brad racked up a million hits online. He had a sit-down with Kimmel, a chat with Regis and Kelly, and a private audience with Dr. Oliver Sacks. Suddenly, the world couldn't get enough of a middle-aged radio newsman from a mid-sized city in Wisconsin. Go figure.

Eventually, AJ dropped the pseudonym and, upon the publication of her memoir, began granting interviews as Jill Price. UC-Irvine had also identified a third bonafide case, a Cleveland man named Rick Baron, who was promptly summoned to be interviewed on the "Today Show." America was in danger of hyperthymesia overload.

Once things settled down, I could plow through my accumulated 80-plus hours of footage and, when Brad and Rick had the first-ever face-to-face meeting of two hyperthymestics at the end of '08, I felt like I had an ending. It took another year to shape the material, but I am pleased -- and relieved - that the film, "Unforgettable", will have its world premiere in our home state, at the Wisconsin Film Festival, in mid-April.

After this lengthy journey, I have emerged with an entertaining and funny movie of which I am very proud and which I am not yet sick of watching. Like any first-time documentarian, I learned many things the hard way and will know what not to do next time, but I enjoyed the process enough that I hope there is a next time. It has been such a fulfilling experience that I wish someone had told me to document my brother's peculiar memory years ago.

The film may be finished, but the story goes on. A "60 Minutes" piece looms as the researchers at Irvine prepare their next scientific paper, in which they are expected to identify a region of the brain which is dramatically different in hyperthymestics than in the rest of us.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, after four years of worldwide news coverage and hundreds of people coming forth to claim that they too have hyperthymesia, Irvine's official tally of recognized case-studies:

Seven.

Among them?

Marilu Henner.


If you think you may have this type of memory, or know someone who might, you can contact the UC-Irvine researchers at ultramem@uci.edu.

 

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