What if you finished reading this article and remembered every detail of it for the rest of your life? That’s the problem people with super-autobiographical memory face—and yes, it’s often referred to as a problem, not a gift. Their minds are like a computer hard drive that retains everything: dates, middle names, license plate numbers, even what they eat for lunch on a daily basis. There are only four confirmed super memory cases, a disorder experts say is somewhat related to OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], though no doubt there are plenty others who haven’t been identified yet.
So who are the four individuals who’ve all recently been the subject of a study at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine? Let’s meet them and find out…
A Los Angeles based producer for the Tennis Channel, Bob Petrella may remember every number in his cell phone, but it’s his ability to recall sporting events that’s most remarkable. Give him a date, like March 30, 1981, and he could tell you not only that it was the day Reagan was shot, but also that Indiana beat North Carolina for the NCAA championship that evening. Even more impressive: when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite team, you can show him a single freeze frame from most any game that he’s seen, and he can tell you not only the date of the game, but the final score.
According to a piece on ABC news, Petrella "remembers all but two of his birthdays since he turned 5. He recalls where he was and what he did with high school buddies. Grainy images of the 1970s are vivid pictures in his head. ‘I remember all my ATM codes,’ he said. ‘I remember people’s numbers. [I] lost my cell phone Sept. 24, 2006. A lot of people, if they lost their cell phone, they would panic because they have all these numbers. I didn’t have any numbers in my cell phone because I know everybody’s numbers up here [in my head].’
Probably the best known of the four, Jill Price has described her ‘gift’ as "nonstop, uncontrollable and totally
exhausting." She was the first to be diagnosed with the condition, and recently published a memoir, The Woman Who Can’t Forget. Price remembers most details of nearly every day she’s been alive since she was 14 and compares her super memory to walking around with a video camera on her shoulder. "If you throw a date out at me, it’s as if I pulled a videotape out, put in a VCR and just watched the day," she has said.
Like Bob Petrella, Price calls California home, though working as an assistant at a Jewish religious day-school, she’s about as far from Hollywood as you can get. And although people she meets at parties are impressed with her ability to remember everything from the date of the Lockerbie plane bombing (December 21, 1988) to the last episode of Dallas (May 3, 1991), in her memoir, she describes super memory as a nuisance, partly because she can’t seem to forget painful events, like when someone she was crushing on rejected her.
For every Jill Price, there’s a Brad Williams, a Wisconsin radio anchor who embraces his super memory and enjoys having it tested. Ask him what happened on November 7, 1991 and he’ll tell you that it was the day Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. But Williams does not stop there. "It was a Thursday," he once said in an MSNBC piece. There was a big snowstorm here the week before."
Unlike Bob Petrella, Williams has a tough time with sports, but excels at pop-culture trivia. For instance, he could name you every Academy Award winner and even nailed all five questions in the category "1984 Movies" when he appeared on Jeopardy! in 1990.
Although the folk at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine don’t agree, Williams says he never saw his ability as anything out of the ordinary.
"Growing up, I never really had reason to think I wasn’t like everyone else," he has said. A feature-length doc on his life, titled Unforgettable, is presently in production.
If you’re interested in the subject, remember to check it out once it hits theaters.
4. Rick Baron
A Cleveland, Ohio native, Rick Baron came out and announced his super ability directly to USA Today, after reading a piece the newspaper published on Jill Price. Unlike Price, Baron uses his super memory to win stuff. Although unemployed, he’s extremely resourceful and is constantly entering and winning trivia contests. His list of rewards includes restaurant gift cards, tickets to sporting events, even all expense paid vacations (Baron has won 14 of them). Baron claims to remember every detail of his life since the age of 11, and is usually pretty successful at remembering the day-to-day going all the way back to when he was seven.
According to the USA Today piece on Baron, his sister claims he shows signs of hardcore OCD. "He organizes and catalogs everything. He even keeps his bills in order of the city of the Federal Reserve Bank where they were issued and also by how the sports teams in that city did."