The "fab five" of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, as profiled on "60 Minutes" -- Bob Petrella, Brad Williams, Rick Baron, Marilu Henner, Louise Owen. PHOTO: Nan Collett
According to Wikipedia, notable people who have died on July 15 through the years include John Lennon's mother, Julia (1958), actor and game-show host Bert Convy (1991), and fashion designer Gianni Versace (1997).
Someone should add Rick Baron to that list, following his passing this past Friday at the age of 53.
It would be fitting, because Rick was exceptionally good at recalling when people died. The first time I met him, he rattled off when all the major cast members of "The Wizard Of Oz" had died, as well as the dates of the deaths of the Three Stooges. And not just the big Stooges. He could tell you about Joe Besser and Joe De Rita, too.
Rick Baron, of Cleveland, was case study No. 3 in the research being conducted by the University of California - Irvine into what they are calling "highly superior autobiographical memory" (HSAM). The people in their study can remember the events of their lives with remarkable detail, pinning even mundane occurrences, like what they ate or what they watched on television to specific dates and days of the week. After publication of Irvine's findings on their initial subject in 2006, my brother Brad became their second case study, and I documented that process and the unlikely notoriety which followed in my film, Unforgettable.
Rick became part of the research in 2007, after Rick's sister learned of Irvine's study on the Internet, something Rick couldn't have done on his own. He seemed to take pride in his lack of knowledge of computers, his non-ownership of a cell phone, his general Luddite-ity. If he was out of the house, you could leave a message on his answering machine, with its tinny cassette tapes that tended to make the incoming caller sound like Charlie Brown's teacher. He learned the old-fashioned way, from books and newspapers and magazines, and all the information he needed seemed to be stored and easily retrievable in his brain. If he'd heard it once, he would forever remember your phone number or your birthday. He could tell you the exact dates on which he'd previously spoken to you. I'm sure I'd have found all this astonishing if I hadn't grown up around my brother and his similar abilities.
The woman whose memory launched the Irvine research has shown little interest in meeting the others being studied, but Rick eagerly reached out to Brad, happy to have found another person who shared this rare talent. Rick was also delighted to talk to me and to our other brother, Greg, calling us frequently. He was stunned that we didn't have this same type of memory and was certain that he could teach us how to remember this way if we gave him half an hour. He just couldn't conceive that something which came so easily to him could be so elusive to the rest of us.
Rick liked to talk. To call him "garrulous" was an understatement. As Groucho Marx would say, Rick must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. My first phone call with Rick lasted roughly an hour, the last half of which was punctuated with umpteen iterations of "Just one more thing and I'll let you go." Not only was Rick's mind stuffed with information, those torrents of facts were positively bursting forth. He was a gusher of knowledge, and he was determined to let it all out before he let you go.
In December 2008, Brad and I drove to Cleveland to shoot the climax of my documentary, the first-ever face-to-face encounter between two HSAM-ers. The contrast between Brad and Rick was dramatic, with Brad as low-key and deliberate as Rick was boisterous and explosive. For several hours, Brad and Rick compared notes but mostly compared memories, using this historic opportunity not to share any great insights about the processes of the human mind, which the rest of us could never comprehend, but to bombard each other with bits of date-centric trivia from their shared pop-culture recollections, trying to discover if the other had managed to store up the same obscure minutiae about "Petticoat Junction" and "Top Cat."
What happened on TV in the 60s loomed large for these two baby boomers. Rick asked Brad what was the big event on Friday, November 5, 1965. Brad somehow knew that it was the wedding on "The Farmer's Daughter." Brad challenged Rick to tell him what happened on September 15, 1965. Rick could barely contain himself, effusively declaring that to be "one of the most famous days!" as it marked the premiere date of the TV series "Gidget," "Lost In Space," "Green Acres" and "F Troop." A later visit to the Internet Movie Database confirmed that as the debut date for the first three, but not for "F Troop." While editing the footage, I discovered that Rick didn't stand up 100 percent to rigorous fact-checking. In the face of such an overwhelming barrage of assertions, the vast majority of them correct, it was easy to assume that he must be right about everything -- and certainly easier than to stop and double-check them all. Maybe, in the rush of facts tumbling through his lips, he didn't take sufficient time to ponder the accuracy of everything he said. Or maybe, sometimes, he hadn't learned the correct fact in the first place, so his brain was accurately recalling a piece of inaccurate information.
At any rate, he followed up a few minutes later by excitedly informing Brad that, the day before (September 14, 1965), "My Mother The Car" had premiered. And he was right about that.
A year after that first encounter, Rick and Brad were reunited in California, along with three more participants in the HSAM research -- Bob Petrella, Louise Owen and Marilu Henner -- to be profiled for "60 Minutes." In this more controlled environment, with a professional camera crew looming about, things weren't quite as free-wheeling and exhausting as they had been in Rick's living room in Cleveland, but when Lesley Stahl would throw out a date to the five "memory superstars,"all would pounce, each wanting to prove their memory was just as ludicrously efficient as the others'. Not only did all five have distinctively different personalities, none of the five even experienced this type of memory in precisely the same way. Although certain areas of their brains do appear to be substantially larger than in an ordinary brain, the research has not yet conclusively indicated how or why their memories work the way they do. (As a result of the "60 Minutes" exposure, the pool of case studies has now reportedly expanded to twenty. If you think you may have this type of memory, or know someone who might, you can contact the UC-Irvine researchers at email@example.com.)
Rick had used his remarkable memory to win prizes in trivia contests but otherwise had difficulty putting his abilities to practical use. He didn't view his memory as a curse or a hindrance and was looking forward to the opportunities that his newfound celebrity might bring him. He appeared on the "Today" show on the same day Brad was being interviewed by Regis and Kelly, and he was profiled for a show on the Discovery Health channel, "Plastic Fantastic Brain." He talked of performing his memory act on cruise ships and took meetings with Hollywood agents about building a quiz show around him. In his living room in 2008, he had told us, "I live for the future, and hopefully a more exciting life."
Around the time that the "60 Minutes" piece aired in December 2010, Rick learned that he had cancer. In my final phone conversation with Rick in May, he had just finished aggressive chemotherapy but said the cancer was in remission and he was continuing to talk about what he might do when he recovered. Unfortunately, he lost his battle last Friday -- two months to the day after our last conversation (as Rick would have been the first to point out, if he'd had the chance).
Near the end of the night in Cleveland back in 2008, I asked Rick if he had thought of donating his brain to science. At the time, he didn't want to discuss the matter: "Let's use it while I'm still living as opposed to worrying about it when I'm dead." I don't know if he ever gave the issue any further thought, but I'm sure the researchers in Irvine have already learned a great deal from studying Rick Baron and his remarkable mind.
So long, Rick. Thanks for the memories.