Ken Jennings


April 29, 2008

I was interviewed last week for this piece in the Orange County Register about Brad Williams, the second person ever diagnosed with the newly-coined condition hyperthymesia, which basically just means that he has a phenomenal autobiographical memory. Read the Register piece; it’s a good high-level overview.

“What happened 23 years ago today (April 7, 2008)?”

“Ok, in 1985 it was Easter Sunday, and my mom and dad were visiting me in Nebraska where I was working. We went to the movies the night before and saw Cher in Mask in downtown Lincoln.”

I’m mentioned in the article because Brad and I played NTN/Buzztime once in a local bar. It just happened to be the night of the week when they do the “What year did these things happen?” quiz. Brad wiped the floor with me. I think I was set up.

The first woman ever diagnosed with this syndrome (called “A.J.” in the literature, but recently outed as a Los Angeles woman named Jill Price) seems haunted, even tortured, by her condition. We’ll know more when her memoir comes out in a week or two. By contrast, Brad is well-adjusted, mild-mannered. Would having that kind of memory make you more reflective or nostalgic about your life? Would you be more or less alert to the world around you? Would you be more inclined to learn from past mistakes and avoid repeating them? As near as I can tell, Brad is completely unmarked by his remarkable gift. Except that he works in radio news, where it probably comes in handy to know the exact date The Poseidon Adventure opened or Alan Shepard died.

I think I have a pretty good memory, but it’s clear to me after meeting Brad that I’m not just some weak-sauce version of his same trick. His brain is doing something entirely different from the rest of us, something pegged to chronology. Maybe it’s been self-reinforcing since he realized (as a kid?) how his mind works, but his memory was always special.

What random autobiographical details can you dredge out of your past with weird specificity? For some reason, I still know that my sixth-grade lock combination was 9-28-39. Why can I remember this number and not the dozen subsequent lock combinations I’ve learned? Probably because it was the first, and maybe I was terrified about forgetting it. Strong emotion tends to be the one thing that fixes memory so indelibly for me. Not so with Brad, of course. I doubt he was all that moved by Cher’s Mask on Easter 1985.

Posted by Ken at 10:40 am