Frequently Asked Questions

Brad Williams

Brad answers some of the most common questions about himself and his memory...

When did you first realize that your memory was different from that of most other people?

There was no single moment when I realized how extensive my memory skills were. But when I was 12 years old, our school had an assembly program featuring a memory expert named O.G. Fitzgerald. I volunteered to go on stage when he asked if there were students who thought they could remember a 12-digit number he had written on the blackboard. He asked me to start with the last digit and recite every other digit backwards, and I did. After the program, he told me I was the first person to do it right.

Have your abilities been a blessing or a burden?

My memory skills have not been a burden, and I do enjoy being able to remember details about past events in my life, and recalling what happened on certain days in past years.

Do you find that you have to personally experience something to remember it?

Not always. World War II happened before I was born, but I can remember details and dates concerning the war because of reading about it and seeing old films.

Do you have to care about something to remember it?

No. I can remember plenty of odd things which I have no sensible reason to recall, but I do.

Are there any types of memories that you remember more easily or frequently? Are emotions connected to your memories?

Many of my memories are tied to emotions, but having an emotional attachment is not necessary to recall dates or events. Experiences such as vacations, stage productions I have done, or movies I’ve seen may stand out more than other memories.

Have your MRIs or any other neuroimaging techniques revealed anything unusual or important?

The researchers are still studying the MRIs, so I don’t think they’ve reached any conclusions yet.

Have you ever experienced a lapse in your memories?

I find that recent events, within the last 10 years, are sometimes harder to recall, such as names of popular songs. That could be because I’m not as interested in some of the current music as I was years ago.

Are you able to use your memory to your advantage in academic or work settings or do the memories simply come to you? Are you good at memorizing things when you intentionally try to or is it only a passive process?

My memory skills have been useful in studying for spelling bees and quizzes. I seem to have more trouble memorizing dialogue for plays now than I did years ago, but I think it’s because I’m trying to set the lines in my head based on what’s happening on stage, rather than just reading the words off a page.

When did the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” air?

The episode in which the shooter was revealed to be Kristin (played by Mary Crosby) aired Friday, November 21, 1980.

(Thanks to Dana Gal at Wesleyan University.)

Hyperthymesia

In May, 2008, Dr. James McGaugh, founding director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California-Irvine, offered the following answers to common questions about UC-I’s research into hyperthymesia:

What is hyperthymesia?

Hyperthymesia is a Greek word that means superior autobiographical memory. All of our study subjects have this type of memory.

When did you begin studying people with superior memory?

In 2000, a woman we call AJ sent us an e-mail asking for help with her memory, which she described as non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting. She said that for most days in her life, she could remember what day of the week it was and what events of note happened on that day. We thought she would be a very interesting case study for the field of memory.

How would you describe AJ’s autobiographical memory?

Her recollections were quick and seemed to be automatic. When asked how she knew an answer, she said she just knew; she can see the event in her mind and relive it, like she is watching a movie. When asked about a particular day, she immediately gave the day of the week it fell on and described some activity she engaged in, such as taking an exam or having lunch with a particular friend.

How have you confirmed the accuracy of her answers?

The significant public events are a matter of record; we fact checked them. We were able to check her personal experiences against a diary she kept from the age of 10 to 34. And her mother verified some things. On the rare occasions that she did not recall an event, she simply said that she did not remember.

You put AJ through neuropsychological testing. What did that involve?

We gave her many standardized psychological tests that assess various mental capabilities. She was asked to remember meaningful and meaningless information, visual data, and things she did or did not say. She performed quite well. In some cases, she was perfect.

How many subjects have you studied to date?

In addition to AJ, we are studying two more subjects, Brad Williams and BR. Through a careful screening process, we have identified several more potential subjects.

What are the similarities among the subjects?

They are common in their ability to give the day of the week for any date given, to tell us what they did on that day, and to tell us about public events that occurred on that day. We also have personal information about each of them that we use to make up tests about their personal life. They have other personal characteristics in common. So far, two of the three are left handed (we don’t know what that means), and they all accumulate massive collections of things.

What are your future plans for the study?

We plan to obtain structural MRIs of our subjects to allow us to get a picture of the structure of their brains. Then, we will compare their brains to those of individuals who do not have superior memories. We will look to see if any structural differences exist in their brains that might account for their superior memory. Then, we plan to give them functional MRIs, which will put the brain to work so we can study them while they are recalling their early experiences. We also would like to find more subjects because we are going to be able to understand the cause of this extraordinary ability only if we have a large number of subjects to study.

If you believe you have this type of superior memory, how should you contact UCI?

Please read the 2006 research paper. If your memory is similar to what is described, please send a message to Nan Collett at nkcollet[at]uci.edu with your telephone number so we can contact you and potentially add you to our pool of candidates to be investigated. Memory is important to understand because it is our most precious ability. If we lose our memories, we lose who we are as individuals.

Click here for further information about UC-Irvine’s studies on superior autobiographical memory.