April 20, 2009

The Woman Who Can't Forget Is Awesome Because She Can Forget

Here's a question: when someone with OCD checks the stove twenty times, why wasn't fifteen times sufficient?

Wired runs a story about The Woman Who Can't Forget, Jill Price.  43 years old, unremarkable in most ways except that she can recall every (?) event in her lifetime, including events in the world.  For example, ask her when a certain plane crashed and she can tell you-- and also tell you what she was doing that day; as well as every other plane crash in the past forty years, as well as what she was doing those days, etc, etc.

It works also in reverse: give her a date and she can recall what happened to her, and what happened in the world.

She has a vivid, perfect autobiographical memory, and anything else that happened within the blast radius of her life experiences.

She's been the subject of newspaper articles, a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, this Wired article.  She is amazing in her skill-- no one disputes that.

However, interestingly, she has trouble with recent memory.  She forgets an interview from a month ago.  She cannot recall a list of ten words read to her; and, she can be tricked into remembering a word that she never heard (thread, pin, thimble but she remembers also needle.)

She was a very average student.  She has not won Jeopardy.

But, she says that her memories are always running in the background of her mind, like a movie of sorts, that she can't turn off.  She is an obsessive journal taker, constantly jotting down the minutiae of her life-- however, she says she rarely rereads these journals. 

Wired also reports that she collects/hoards all the memorabilia of her life; her stuffed animals, old TV Guides, etc.

As I followed Price's story, I was fascinated but doubtful. I am a cognitive psychologist, and to me something didn't smell right.

The writer suspects that she doesn't have an impressive memory, per se, but rather OCD.

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.
Slow down, James Randi.

It may indeed be true that she has OCD, but it is unlikely the cause of her impressive memory.


First, let's answer my opening question.  If someone with OCD has to check everything "seven" times or else something bad will happen, then it is the ritual that is the point, not actually getting any information from your checking.

But if someone is "neurotic" (vernacular) and has to check the stove twenty times in order to reassure himself that the stove is off, then something is not occurring between the eyeballs and the brain.  He sees the stove is off, but then when he diverts his attention to something else, he does not trust himself-- he has to go back and check again.  We've all had this experience to some degree-- tap into it, because there are three possibilities:

1a. you do not trust your memory of what you saw  ("Did I really see it off?")

1b. you do not trust your memory of the checking ("Did I really check it, or didn't I")

2. you do not trust your attention to it (I know I looked at the stove itself and the flame was off, but perhaps I didn't pay enough attention to the knob which was turned just enough to allow a gas leak)

A few minutes reflection on these two possibilities will strongly suggest that both or either might be the explanation for the initial two or three checks.  "I'm just not sure..."  But why more than that?  Is there a point when you feel totally satisfied?  No-- you force yourself away.

3. the more you check-- the process of checking itself-- causes you to distrust your how well you performed the previous check.

Number 3 is indeed so powerful that regular (non-OCD) people can come to doubt their checks by making them check multiple times.

So a downward spiral forms: lack of confidence in memory or attention makes you check again, which in turn reduces your confidence in your attention to the check, which causes you to check again, etc, etc.

Note that the actual content of the memory is intact, e.g. accurate.  If I make you check a word list,  and you check it thirty times ("are you sure those are the words?") your confidence in the check will be poor (did I really look at the top five closely enough?) but your actual recall of the words will be good.

Jill Price does not lack confidence in her memories.  She doesn't even need to check her journals.  Going over her memories repeatedly may be what helps her remember, but it isn't OCD that's making her go over them.


Lost in all the hype is an inconvenient fact: Price's brain was scanned more than two years ago, and the results--not yet published--apparently don't support the notion that she's some kind of memory goddess. Her hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are reportedly normal. The one significant aberration, according to Price--who was told about the scans by doctors who won't discuss them publicly--is that her brain resembles those of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If by "resembles" he means "is as squishy as" then I'll concur.  If he means something else, say, "smaller grey matter in BA6" then I dissent: the brains of people with OCD don't even resemble the brains of other people with OCD.  First, anatomical differences are invisibly uninformative.  Second, functional differences (e.g. fMRI) are only visible when OCD is separated by subtype (e.g. checking, hoarding, etc) but these diffferences are useful only to distinguish between groups of people you already know have OCD, not as diagnostic tests.  For example, the pic below shows significant correlations to activity in (checking) OCD patients vs. controls:

ocd fmri.jpg

But if Jill Price's fMRI was any of the red circles, what would you deduce?  Anything?  In order for these scans to be useful, they have to be tied to the phenomenology, and even then, they aren't worth the money.


There are some mechanistic explanations for her abilities: notable is the way she uses emotional cues (such as songs) to call up the feelings; and an intuitvely backwards calendar system to remember dates.  That's for another post (someday, sigh.)

But let me leave you with a more general, social point, concerning her fame-- why we should care about her.

Oddly, the Wired writer does hit on the likely explanation for her memory:

Why were Price's abilities blown so far out of proportion? I wouldn't blame Price; she's as happy to tell what she doesn't remember as what she does. But her story has taken on a life of its own. It started with that 2006 journal article: Although the scientists knew about Price's diaries and compulsions, little in the paper speaks to the question of whether it might be personality, not memory, that makes her extraordinary.

Wrong: it is precisely her memory which makes her extraordinary, and not anything else.  the mistake the writer makes is the need to find a biological explanation for her extraordinariness, as opposed to simply the result itself.  Is her memory any less extraordinary because she doesn't have a gigantic hippocampus? 

Also, note the conflation of "personality" with OCD.  The writer is an academic psychologist, and he absolutely knows OCD isn't personality; but he uses the words interchangeably because they both mean "not related to specific memory modules in the brain."

This woman is 43, she lives with her parents, she is a school administrator, she looks like Janice from The Sopranos-- none of these things would make Wired want to write an article  about her.  But here's the point:  if she was born with a gigantic hippocampus, then Wired wouldn't care about her then, either.  And if she was born with a gigantic hoppocampus but she didn't have a superior memory-- then again, no article.

What's amazing about her is that she can do this for no good reason.

She is amazing by virtue of her personality-- i.e. adaptation to her environment.  If I was an amazing marathoner by genetics-- boring.  But if I was an amazing marathoner because for the first twenty years of my life I was relentlessly pursued by a puma, well, that's a story worth writing about.

She has caused to exist an amazing ability despite not having the biologic machinery one expects in these situations.

Let me put it another way: she's amazing because of what she has done, not of what she is

And that's supposed to be the way it is for everybody.


Let me put it another wa... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 7:17 PM | Posted by Joshua: | Reply

Let me put it another way: she's amazing because of what she has done, not of what she is.

And that's supposed to be the way it is for everybody.

This is why I get uppity when people use the word "skill" and "talent" interchangeably. Talent is something that comes naturally, skill is something that one works at and develops.

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What about a 4th possibilit... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 8:22 PM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

What about a 4th possibility: You're afraid the stove turned back on in the time between now and the time last checked?

This is the most common reason I would do something "neurotic" like that (obsessively insist on rechecking something I had previously checked)... it would be out of fear that it was somehow disturbed or turned back on in the time between then and now.

Perhaps this is why I am mentally ill. I believe in a magic ability of a stove to turn back on... or, perhaps, the devious motives of other humans to turn it on again. I'm not sure why I think this way, all I know is that I do think "validated/verified right things" can become "unright" without proper reason to believe they might become "unright" again.

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BTW I was dx bipolar... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 8:29 PM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

I was dx bipolar II so I'm not schizo or anything but I often have crazy thoughts and sometimes I see strange crap.

My grand ma ma was schizo full blown and my father (her son) often reports similar issues (seeing/thinking crap that isn't there, insane paranoia that people are out to get him/persecuting him) so maybe it is some sort of "schizotypal phenotype" to use the LING-O. Supposedly schizotypal features are real common in families of schizos.

I think my bipolar II is what you get when you marry recurrent depression (my mom) with general batsh*ttery (my father). End result? Haha.

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Oh and reading this I found... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 8:52 PM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

Oh and reading this I found it odd that the psychologist believed it was her "personality" and "OCD" at that. This is obvoiusly a biologically based quirk, and my instinct was that it is possibly related to autism. The whole "memories always playing" sounds a lot like the newer research into how autistic brains work: they always seem to be in a sort of "daydream mode" which keeps them isolated from the world as a secondary symptom (often attributed to the primary defect). Her strange ritualized way of thinking and pointlessness of her journals could be OCD, but it could also be a form of autism spectrum too.
I wonder what her day to day job tasks involve... I bet it involves ordering/organizing/structuring and routines.

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Asperger's is indeed a p... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 10:08 PM | Posted, in reply to Anon's comment, by Alone: | Reply

Asperger's is indeed a possibility here. If you read the case report you'll see some interesting findings-- note the way she imagines her calendar (running backwards) and deficits such as some face blindness, etc. Again, for another day.

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Let me suggest a couple of ... (Below threshold)

April 21, 2009 4:41 PM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

Let me suggest a couple of other possibilities:

- You can remember turning the gas off at some point in the past, but you can't distinguish the memory of doing it today from the memory of doing it yesterday, or the day before that. Sure, you turned it off at some point - but was that today, or was it yesterday, meaning that it's still on today? You can make the memories distinct by (e.g.) writing in your journal entry for 21 April 2009 "turned gas off". The memory of doing this is different from the memory with 20 April written at the top of the page, and if all else fails you can look in the journal.

- Confabulation. The unconscious parts of your mind send you a danger signal, but aren't specific about what the danger is, because they don't use words. (You might compare this to hearing your dog bark, but being unable to ask it why it's barking. NB it's not an auditory hallucination of e.g. a dog barking. It's an internal sensation like being hungry, or being tired, or sexual desire). So you look around for the cause - you wonder if it's because you left the gas on, and go and check. Nope, you turned the gas off. But you're still getting the danger signal. Are you sure you turned the gas off? So you go and check again.

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Yes, she sounds similar to ... (Below threshold)

April 21, 2009 5:11 PM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

Yes, she sounds similar to many people I know with Asperger's Syndrome.

PS. Calculating the date of Easter isn't hard. There's a formula for it that you can learn if you can be bothered. I know several people with AS that are fond of it, andI remember one woman trying to teach it to her four-year old, to keep him amused.

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Susan C- I like your second... (Below threshold)

April 22, 2009 3:36 AM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

Susan C- I like your second reason one might check something, but unfortunately it wouldn't explain repeated fixation with checking the SAME thing. The "danger signal" would lead us to be a little paranoid and hypersensitive in general, but it wouldn't explain preservation, the illogical repetative checking behaviors.

I would imagine that to play out like this: First, check stove,then check windows to make sure no one is outside, then check front door, then maybe the stove again (if enough time passed), etc.

As for your first exception, these circumstances are simply a variation which is already covered in 1b. (did I check it, or didn't i?).

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Isn't checking also reinfor... (Below threshold)

April 27, 2009 1:01 AM | Posted by lovethissite: | Reply

Isn't checking also reinforced behavior? The sense of relief we feel because "we did turn off the stove," reinforces the checking behavior...am I wrong here??

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"He sees the stove is off, ... (Below threshold)

April 27, 2009 8:04 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"He sees the stove is off, but then when he diverts his attention to something else, he does not trust himself-- he has to go back and check again."
The Psychiatrist tells his new patient. You are not in prison, this is a hospital. You are sick and need medication. We are helping you. We are not lying to you. Until you agree we are helping you, you are sick.
How many people can come out of that brainwashing (enforced with mind altering drugs) and trust themself?

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So you're telling me that i... (Below threshold)

July 4, 2010 1:38 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

So you're telling me that instead of keeping herself in the environment that constructed we need to forget, and fighting accordingly, she instead decided to leave and find something else to do? What a fucking pussy. I have no idea how to define fighting but I have enough whiskey to last me till at least the end of tomorrow.

The problem, it would seem is not that she wants to forget, but that a psychological mechanism exists that compells a person to escape. Let's call it fear. Because jealousy is just a manifestation of wanting a reality without it.

Anywho, enjoy your independence day. Lustfully, greedfully, and remorselessly.

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I don't know if you check t... (Below threshold)

May 16, 2014 10:42 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I don't know if you check the comments from these older posts anymore, but I'm wondering if you ever ended up writing the second post about her backwards running calendar.

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Synesthesia. ... (Below threshold)

March 29, 2015 11:08 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply


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Fascinating anon. Is that t... (Below threshold)

March 30, 2015 7:52 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

Fascinating anon. Is that true?

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I believe she has spatial s... (Below threshold)

April 27, 2015 11:10 PM | Posted, in reply to johnnycoconut's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

I believe she has spatial sequence synesthesia. She can visualize time in space around her, so 1980 is really farther away from her than 2015. Some people with this form of synesthesia don't even have a logical order to where certain times are for them; 1990 might be above their head and to the left while 1980 is near their right knee. The point is that she can "see" the date, so the information she wants is all there.

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