Man's rare gift may unlock secret of memory
LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Give Brad Williams a date, and he can usually tell you not only what he was doing but what world events happened that day. He can do this for almost every day of his life.
Williams is one of only three people in the world identified with this off-the-charts autobiographical memory, according to researchers at the University of California-Irvine who gave the condition its name: hyperthymestic syndrome, from the Greek words for excessive (hyper) and remembering (thymesis).
Unlike most people whose memories fade with time, much of Williams' life is etched indelibly in his mind.
"It's just there," said Williams, 51, who reports the news for a family of radio stations in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The California researchers are studying Williams and the two others with hyperthymestic syndrome, a man in Ohio and woman in California, hoping to gain new insights into how a superior memory works.
The goal of the study is to find a way to help people with failing memory.
At Irvine, researchers quizzed Williams, as they have the two other hyperthymestics, about a series of dates, asking for the corresponding event, and vice-versa.
"The speed with which they do this is part of why I find this so amazing because it seems to indicate there's no -- or not much -- intentional calculation going on. It's boom, boom, boom, there's the answer," said Larry Cahill, a fellow at the university's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. "Remember, these are questions they had no idea what we're going to ask them."
Cahill said Williams and the other hyperthymestics don't do any better than average on standard memory tests, nor are they savants, a condition where one extraordinary mental ability is accompanied by deficits in other areas.