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The woman who can’t forget, can

Psychologists have come to hold two basic tenets about human memory capacity:

  • Everyone’s innate memory abilities are limited.
  • With the right techniques, anyone can learn to dramatically improve their memory for things that they make an effort to remember.

For instance, Maguire et al (2002) scanned the brains of ten world-class mnemonists, and concluded:

Using neuropsychological measures, as well as structural and functional brain imaging, … superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences.

In other words, anyone can learn the techniques and strategies that world-class mnemonists employ.

So I was both astonished and curious to hear about Jill Price, a woman claimed to have effortless and almost complete autobiographical recall:

I’ve been driven to study memory and to found Memrise by a keen frustration with my own memory and a yearning to minimize the pain of forgetting, so I watched Jill Price’s amazing feats of recollection with a mixture of admiration and envy. If Jill Price’s memory really is “nonstop, uncontrollable, and automatic”, as Parker et al (2006) claimed, it would turn the established wisdom about the limits of human memory on its head.

This week, Gary Marcus provided some critical new evidence to suggest that the story is more complicated and interesting still. Her memory may be exceptional when recalling dates and events from her own life, but she’s no better off than the rest of us in other domains.

For a scientist like me, the real test is to see how well Price can remember something new. I am especially interested in memory distortions. If you read an average person a list of words like ‘threadpineyesewingsharppointprickthimblehaystackthornhurtinjection,syringecloth, and knitting’, and then ask them to repeat the words, they’ll likely imagine they’ve heard ‘needle’ even though it’s not on the list.

Can Price sail past the trap of memory distortion? No, she can’t. I read her five lists of words drawn from a psychological test known as the DRM, and not only does she miss a number of words, she also recalls hearing three I didn’t say.

Her performance may be a little above average [at learning these new items], but no more than that.

This raises the critical question:

If Price’s memory of her own history is so precise, why is it so average for everything else? Or, more to the point, if her memory for everything else is so ordinary, why is her memory of her own history so extraordinary? The answer has nothing to do with memory and everything to do with personality. The difference is that she scans her past relentlessly. Every time we think about something, and especially how it connects to something else, we get better at remembering it—a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘elaborative encoding’. Price has spent her whole life ruminating on the past, constructing timelines and lists, and contemplating the connections between one February 19 and the next. Dates and memories are her constant companions, and as a result she’s really good at remembering her past. End of story.

Jill Price provides a fascinating example of how much we can remember if we work hard enough at creating rich, vivid elaborative encodings. Achieving the same amazing velcro-mindedness that Jill Price has exhibited about her own life is possible for all of us in any domain we choose, with the right techniques. That’s why helping people to form such vivid and sticky memories is one of the primary ingredients in Memrise’s mnemonic technology.

If you’d like to get a sense of what it feels like to learn inhumanly fast, give Memrise a try.

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