Hollywood star Marilu Henner’s memory changes our understanding of the brain
The woman who never forgets anything: Hollywood star Marilu Henner’s impressive memory changes our understanding of the brain
A good memory is essential for any aspiring actress struggling with her lines. But in the case of Marilu Henner – a Broadway star who rose to fame on the 1970s sitcom Taxi – his memory isn’t just good, it’s amazing. For her, the past is simply unforgettable.
Give her any date from the past 40 years and she can instantly tell you the day of the week, what she was wearing, the weather, and what was on TV.
If that’s not impressive enough, the 59-year-old Hollywood star, who most recently appeared on UK TV screens in Celebrity Apprentice, can even recall with complete clarity the events that happened while she was taking it. was only 18 months old.
Total recall: Marilu Henner pictured with John Travolta in 1983
Marilu Henner is one of a handful of people with a rare condition called hyperthymesia, or “higher autobiographical memory” – the ability to remember everything that has happened every day of their lives.
Their cases don’t just highlight the incredible power of the mind. They also undermine some of the basic understanding of the nature of memory and the actual limitations of the brain.
Henner considers his supercharged memory a gift.
“It was never a trauma for me – it was just who I was,” she says. “I was very good at remembering things: I was the family historian. People would come to me and ask me stuff, and it was never a problem.
“It was never a trauma for me – it was just who I was. I was very good at remembering things. I was the family historian. People would come to me and ask me. stuff, and it was never a problem.
His first memory is playing with his older brother in the family home in Chicago, aged one and a half. This stunned the scientists, who had assumed that it was virtually impossible to remember the events before the age of two.
And that’s just the beginning. Most people can remember about 250 faces in a lifetime: Henner remembers thousands.
It is impossible for most of us to imagine what it is like to have a memory of each day. She describes sifting through her memories as “looking for a scene on a DVD before me.”
“In a second, I’m back there, watching with my own eyes the scene as I saw it in 1980 or any other time.”
Hyperthymia (hyper means excessive while thymesia means memory in Greek) is a new concept in psychology. It was first identified in 2006 by a team of researchers from the University of California.
In a groundbreaking article published in the journal Neurocase, they introduced the world to a 40-year-old woman – known at the time only by the initials AJ, but who has since “come out” as a director of the Jill Price school.
Much like Marilu Henner, Price can accurately remember what she was doing on any date and what day of the week it fell.
In 2003, researchers asked her to list all the dates of Easter since 1980. In ten minutes and without warning, Price wrote down all 24 dates and added what she was doing to each date. All of the dates except one were correct: the other was delayed by two days.
New development: Although scientists have known for a long time that we are not using the full potential of our brains, hyperthymesia is a recent discovery
When she repeated the experiment two years later, she got all the dates correct. Crucially, too, the personal information she gave about what she was doing each Easter matched her previous answers. No wonder it was dubbed the human calendar by friends.
There is nothing new about people with exceptional memories. Remembrance acts were a staple of Edwardian music halls, while their 21st century counterparts compete in the Memorial World Championships each year.
After the publication of his extraordinary case, other people with hyperthymesia came forward. Today, between six and 20 people are thought to have the disease.
Others are expected to emerge in the coming weeks with the debut of a new American television series, Unforgettable, which stars a detective with a perfect callback. Marilu Henner is one of the show’s advisors.
So what goes on in the brain of these super-callbacks? There is nothing new about people with exceptional memories. Remembrance acts were a staple of Edwardian music halls, while their 21st century counterparts compete in the Memorial World Championships each year.
Modern-day Mr. Memories includes Ben Pridmore, a Derby accountant who can memorize a randomly shuffled deck of cards in less than 25 seconds, and Dominic O’Brien, who can remember the order of 2,808 playing cards afterwards. have examined them.
Remember this? Actress Marilu Henner, seen here in an episode of Emergencies, can recall events that took place when she was 18 months old
But Pridmore and O’Brien use memory techniques developed by the ancient Romans to remember long strings of numbers, cards, or shapes. These techniques typically involve visualizing numbers or playing cards as characters or objects, and then creating a story in which they appear in order along a familiar geographic route, such as a route to travel. at work.
Marilu Henner and Jill Price are different. Their powers are beyond their control. Instead of actively remembering events, their brains look like video recorders – taking note of everything that happens to them and storing it.
Psychologists admit to being baffled by their talents. But they also don’t know how the memory of an ordinary person works.
Most agree that there are at least two types of memory: short-term and long-term memory. The short term contains a small amount of information that can be quickly recalled – but only for a short period of time. Some think it acts as a “sorting office”, sending some information to long-term memory and discarding the rest.
Long term memory is where information is kept for months and years. It includes information about things we know how to do without thinking, like tying shoelaces or changing gears, as well as events we can remember.
But how things go from short-term memory to long-term memory is a matter of debate – and where the mystery of hyperthymia lies lies.
In the 1950s, psychologists argued that everything that happened to us shifted from short-term memory to long-term memory – and that the brain had unlimited memorization capacity.
Everything that has happened to us is here, if only we knew how to reach it. But over the past several decades, memory researchers have challenged this view, arguing that the brain is more selective in what it encloses. Rather than keeping a record of all events, only certain memories are transferred – and often not very precisely.
Frustration exercise: everything that has happened to us is stored in our brain – but trying to remember it can be frustrating sometimes (Posed by model)
Some information is passed from short-term memory to long-term memory through active choice or repetition. Other events are moved to the long term thanks to the “flash bulb” effect, where a sudden shock, such as mourning or the announcement of the death of a celebrity like Princess Diana or John Lennon, crystallizes vivid memories.
Cases like Marilu Henner now suggest that our long-term memory may not be selective after all. If she remembers everything that happened to her, maybe the rest of us could, too – if only we knew how to access this information.
One of Britain’s top experts, Professor Giuliana Mazzoni of the University of Hull, believes hyperthymesis could challenge the established view of memory.
“This condition is incredible,” she said. “If a woman in her 40s or 50s can remember every day of her life, then the capacity of our memory is more or less endless. And that suggests that there is a lot more to discover.
“The other big surprise of this type of condition is that it confirms a very old view of memory – that it is reproductive; that the events are literally encoded in memory. ‘
Henner sees hyperthymesis as a blessing – but not everyone sees it that way. Jill Price described her condition as “non-stop, out of control and totally exhausting”.
“Most called it a gift, but I call it a burden,” she said. “I spend my whole life in my head every day and it drives me crazy.”
While most people approaching old age might rejoice in the bright, nimble memories of youth, psychologists say the ability to forget unhappy experiences can make the difference between a life of contentment and a life of regret and pain. ‘bitterness.
“For some people with hyperthymesis, it is a curse because it makes life impossible,” explains Professor Mazzoni.
“They spend their day remembering, and it doesn’t help to move on with life.
“Forgetting can be a blessing. “