About 15 years ago, prompted by a distressed letter from a 34-year-old woman who could precisely recall each and every thought she’d had during each and every day of her life, a team of scientists at U.C., Irvine, discovered an ability they named “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory,” or HSAM. To date, 56 people have been identified as possessing a structural difference in their brain that allows them to swiftly and vividly recall their life’s events — from the mundane to the monumental — usually starting around early adolescence (Marilu Henner is among this elite squad of people with super-memories).
Whereas those with other elevated recall abilities can remember physical details with remarkable precision, people with HSAM, while having these abilities to a certain extent, specialize in the personal, the emotional. They are master autobiographers able to remember exactly what they were doing, thinking, and, perhaps most important, feeling at any given moment in time. Science of Us spoke with Joey DeGrandis, a 30-year-old New Yorker who has HSAM, to learn more about life with the condition.
So, do you remember everything?
I certainly don’t remember every single second of every single day, but on average I recall more about my experience of the world than other people. Plus, there’s a lot of emotionality tied into everything that I experience.
What do you mean by ‘emotionality’?
For a given date, I could probably tell you something that happened to me on that day, where I was in life, and the emotions attached to that. When I’m recalling these memories I’m really back there, emotionally. I’ll remember how I was feeling at a certain time very vividly. Prior to being diagnosed with HSAM I always wondered: Am I just a sensitive person? I’ve always been deeply impacted by things. I remember when I was 9 years old a kid called me fat while I was waiting to use the water fountain; I was so upset I almost had to go home.
Can you remember every detail (say, what color of dress somebody was wearing, or what she smelled like)?
In general, I’m not good at remembering fashion; maybe because I don’t care about clothes. But I can remember the weather. I go directly to a moment, or a date, and then zoom out from there. I’ll remember what I experienced or how I felt on a particular calendar day and I’ll start thinking about that time period — here’s what I was going through, here’s what I was doing, and then from that point forward it’s a sensory experience like I’m reliving the day or time.
That sounds like it could be pretty torturous.
Sometimes it’s great because there will be good experiences associated with certain memories. I’m grateful to have had more good than bad in my life. Today, I can go back about 20 years or so and if given a date I can tell you usually at least one thing that was happening on that day as I experienced it. Some days, I honestly don’t remember, but that’s rare and I can usually remember the day after or before. The memory will trigger images, sentiments, emotions—literally the way someone looked in a certain light or something like that.
When did you discover that you have a unique memory ability?
It all started with my ability to name the day of the week of any given date. The irony is I don’t remember the exact date this started! But here’s what I do remember. I’m in my room in Ohio (I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland) and I have a Goosebumps calendar on the wall of my room. It was September, 1994, and I remember looking at the calendar and thinking I know that September 19 is a Monday. I just remember seeing that date and being very much aware of it.
How did you know the dates? Did you learn an algorithm?
I don’t know. There is an algorithm you can use to figure out the day of a week, but I don’t know it and I still don’t know how to use it. It’s just a calculation that my mind does and I don’t even understand how. It’s very hard to explain how I get there but it’s almost like I’m standing over the year, actually looking at the whole year and then I home in on a day and sometimes I link it up to another year when that date was the same day of the week. The first time that I went public with the ability was June 1, 1995, a Thursday.
The fourth-graders were putting on a magic symposium and I didn’t know what to do. My mom said, “You have an inherent magic ability, so why research a trick when you can make your memory a thing?” I hand drew three large calendars — 1993, 1994, and 1995 and as people came to my booth (by the way, I was dressed as an androgynous Harry Potter … those were the years where they weren’t sure if I was a boy or a girl) I’d emerge and say, “I’m the date magician! I task you to look behind me, see a date on any of those calendars, and I will tell you the day of the week of that date!”
Can you give an example of a day that stands out?
Here’s a particularly vivid memory from my childhood: My parents had a big shower, a large glass-encased thing where you had to squeegee the sides. I remember waiting for the shower to fog up the windows on September 19, 1996 (a Thursday). I wrote the date on the windows in the steam. I can still see myself writing it — I remember seeing it and I remember it stuck there for a while when the fog cleared. The first time I heard “… Baby One More Time” was January 8, 1999 — we had a radio in the shower. I remember the DJ saying: “Here’s a new one from Britney Spears.”
Do you remember your thoughts in detail? What exactly do you remember?
It’s almost like accessing a database, and my mind does it very quickly. I’ll think of all the January 2s I can remember. January 2 of 2003 I was driving and I was sliding on ice; it was an icy day on the road. January 2 of 2004 I had a party at my parents’ house; they were there but I was drinking. January 2, 2005, I was listening to “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand, in the car. In 2007, I was watching a film called Little Manhattan with my grandmother and she recognized Cynthia Nixon from Sex and the City. January 2, 2008, is a super-emo memory. I’d just come back to New York from Ohio for the holidays and I was sitting in Starbucks before work. It was gray and I was watching the traffic from a window seat. I was so tired. I didn’t want to go to work; I wanted to go home and go to bed.
Could you walk me through some particular days, or maybe even a full week? Is there one that comes to mind?
How about my first week as a real New Yorker? After graduating from Fordham on Saturday, May 19, 2007, I spent some time in Ohio and then moved back into the Bronx on Sunday, July 8, 2007. That Sunday afternoon before I left, I was all but freaking out at my house in Ohio. I remember being so jittery, thinking about the permanence of this situation. My dad was annoyed, yet it was fairly comical at the time.
My two friends Leonard and Ricky drove me to the Akron-Canton airport on that sunny afternoon and I remember seeing the white lines go by on the freeway — I probably wouldn’t have associated them with any kind of drug joke at that time — and I remember the “large” feeling of having a one-way ticket in my hand. I was wondering how much of my soon-to-be former life would carry over in the life that was to come. A couple friends picked me up at the airport and drove me back to my apartment on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, while Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” played in the background. It was the first time I heard that song.
On Monday, as I made my way down to work at E. 87th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, I remember staring at the “time until next train” sign at the 125th Street D train station. I was dressed in a black suit. It was a hot, muggy day. I remember slowly opening the door to the office and having lunch nearby at First Wok with a co-worker. Later, that restaurant became Wok 88. l remember riding the train downtown that afternoon with my boss, David. I can still see him as he walked in front of me, boarding the train at 86th Street, in a full suit despite the thick underground air. He told me all about his time in New York and how he regarded the subway as the most efficient form of transportation the city had to offer. We had a meeting at the midtown ad agency Kinetic with a guy named Ray Rotolo. There, I first heard about the pharmaceutical company Novartis (as we were hoping to get their business via Kinetic); I remember taking notes, incorrectly spelling it “Novitus.”
My mom and sister were in town, so that night we went to dinner at the Modern restaurant at MoMA. I told them all about the day; I was excited, but extremely nervous. I remember lying down that night and thinking, “I hope my life doesn’t become monotonous — an endless stream of wake up, work, eat, sleep, and repeat.”
On Tuesday, I practiced my sales pitch with my other boss, Walt. I remember his awkward, “aw, it’s okay you’re horrible” smile, surely understanding I was a rookie who barely knew what we were selling. I felt so uncomfortable as I watched the video recording. That night, I had dinner again with my mom and sister at Sotto Cinque, an Italian bistro on 86th Street. I remember loading up on bread and olive oil. It was another hot day. Although I continued to feel excited, I still felt extremely uneasy, beginning to realize I was on a one-way road to real “adulthood.”
Wednesday was a rainy day; Walt’s wife and kids came down from Rhode Island to visit the office. David was spinning Walt’s youngest son, Mitchell, in the office chair. I was playing “find the ball” with Walt’s other son, Charlie. I remember thinking what it was like to have two kids, let alone two kids who were 2 and 5. Earlier, I’d practiced my sales pitch and it was actually starting to sound better. I felt invigorated. In just three days, I’d managed to go from abysmal to mediocre (yay, me!). I went downtown to my bank, Banca Popolare, to physically deposit a check. Mobile banking was unheard of then, at least for me. I talked to my grandmother on the phone as I walked west along 51st Street; she’d called to ask how my “new life and job” were going. She and I laughed as we talked. She passed away last May.
Later, I called my friend Leonard on the phone as I walked to meet my mom and sister (again!) for dinner at Jasmine, a Thai restaurant on E. 84th and Second Avenue (a restaurant no longer there today). The meal was delicious; I called it an early night.
Okay, I think I get the picture.
On Thursday, I remember waking up and hearing the song “Up!” by Shania Twain. Walt and I took a car out to see potential clients at Boomerang, a small ad agency near Wayne, New Jersey. Walt mentioned the band the Fountains of Wayne as we drove through the town. At Boomerang, we met with Elaine O. and Tom McMillan, and I remember feeling so lost and slightly uncomfortable as we sat in their conference room, industry buzzwords and jargon flying over my head. I do remember thinking, however, how cool it was to get their business cards, and to actually hand out my own ones. For dinner, I got a very overpriced chicken-Caesar wrap from Stage Deli in midtown. It was $16. That’s another venue that is now closed.
This really is pretty impressive.
On Friday, I went with Walt to meet a potential client down at Sixth Avenue and Grand Street. Since Walt was also of Dutch heritage, he joked that the two them would be obligated to wear wooden shoes to the meeting. I remember we waited for a long time at the Union Square subway station for a 6 train; Walt became agitated, stating, “I am never late for a meeting.” I chuckled to myself, thinking, “I must be a bad omen for him; I’m frequently late.” After the meeting, Walt let me go early. I remember feeling so free since it was only 11:40 a.m., and I eagerly went back home. I ran into my friends Chrissy and Harry on the street as I neared my apartment. I remember feeling self-conscious that I was in a suit and they were wearing more casual clothing. I took a nap. I went to the bank. Later, I went downtown to meet my friends Jordan and Chris for cupcakes at Magnolia and then we had a drink at Mercadito. I would end up at the Joshua Tree bar with Michelle and some other friends later that evening. Jordan and Chris parted ways; I later found out they left together to go make out in the park. I still smile when I think about that night.
And I assume more recent memories are just as vivid?
Ironically enough, I don’t remember as much from my recent past. The only explanation I have for this is that these last few weeks haven’t been that emotionally significant, nor have they been particularly “memorable.” But I can still remember various elements, as well as the emotionality, of each day.
Let’s pick a random day.
Okay. On Sunday, September 21, I woke up in Chuck and Courtney’s guest bedroom (Chuck is my best friend from high school and Courtney is his wife). They currently live in the suburbs of Cincinnati,Ohio. I remember first hearing about Courtney on Saturday, November 24, 2007, first “meeting” her on video chat on Sunday, March 9, 2008, and then finally meeting her in person at Panera Bread on Friday, November 27, 2009. In any case, I spent some time talking with Chuck out on their patio and soon after, we went to First Watch (a restaurant) with our friend Erik and Chuck’s brother, Tony.
In the car on the ride over, I remember thinking a lot about how Chuck’s life is so different than mine, yet amazingly, we have remained close friends for 13 years. It was a wonderful feeling. Chuck and Courtney were due to see a house at 4 p.m. that day. Chuck seemed very excited about this potential next step in their lives, yet also seemed a bit anxious. I drove back up to Cleveland that afternoon and I ordered some takeout Thai for dinner, as well as cookie-dough cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. My friend Mac came over; we talked about our mutual friends, had a few laughs about social media and his recent ex, and finally watched the TV show The Strain. I fell asleep right there on the couch watching a documentary about the Roosevelts — not because the content was boring, but because I was exhausted from the weekend.
When were you officially diagnosed with superior autobiographical memory?
I was 10 when I discovered my recall ability, and let’s say for the next 16 years it was just a fun trick. I used it only for my own purposes, to reflect, and it was a party game, a cool thing. My friends would ask things like, When were we last here? When exactly was the last time we all did this together? Meanwhile, Dr. McGaugh, a neurobiologist in California, was researching this ability. He’d found a woman — Patient Zero — who could remember everything and was constantly depressed by her memories.
Later, on May 19, 2008, a gentleman appeared on the Today show for a segment called “total recall.” He had a version of HSAM where he could remember dates and times and memories. Then, in December 2010, a 60 Minutes segment aired. Earlier in the day, when the promos for the show about “memory wizards” started screening, my phone was blowing up. My friends and family were like, These people can do what I think you can do! You should watch. I reached out at the end of the segment to the doctors and they got back to me almost immediately. I was formally diagnosed in August 2011 at U.C., Irvine, after a long series of tests with Dr. McGaugh and some other researchers.
And you went on a follow-up show on 60 Minutes, right? Was that the first time you met other people who have HSAM?
Yeah. It was so cool. We noticed that some of us are better at remembering certain things and it aligns with passions. Marilu Henner is into fashion, so she can remember when she bought all the pairs of shoes she owns. Another was a big football fan so he remembered scores. The thing we all agreed on was the fact that at some point in our lives we had gone through depression, or had some form of it. It wasn’t so much like, Oh, we’re severely depressed. It was more that we have struggled with, or currently struggle with, feeling depressed and feeling weighed down and we believe it may be because of certain memories we are unable to let go of. As Dr. McGaugh puts it, it’s not that we remember everything, but we are poor at forgetting. It’s very difficult for us to forget things that we attach value and emotion to. I don’t even know what it means when someone says, “I’ve let that go — it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
Has this played a big role in romantic relationships?
I’m insecure about admitting this, but I’m single now and I haven’t had a solid relationship in a long time. I don’t want to blame that on my memory ability but it does come into play with breakups. If it was a good relationship or I had a fun series of dates I evoke all those happy emotions when I think about it and it makes me smile.
Alternatively, if it’s a bad breakup or unrequited love then the memories of that linger and hurt when I think about them — especially if there’s no closure. I’m thinking, What did I do? I’m forced to pick back through it. I can remember the last time I saw the person. I can remember where we were. I can remember a funny face they made or a thought or a feeling however fleeting or however lasting it was; I can remember those things. Even if the person ended up doing something wrong or ditches me, the initial positive memory is so strong it’s hard for me to separate: “How can you be this way now, when I remember you so vividly as something different?”
Does that make you stick around in bad scenarios or is it just that breakups are extra distressing?
What I do a lot is try and force conversations with people, which clearly they aren’t interested in, in the name of closure. I’ll try and seek a person out just to set the record straight, and I feel really awkward about it because I know it’s something that’s not socially acceptable and even therapists have told me it’s not worth it. But it’s very hard for me to not do that. In the case of a colleague I recently had a brief thing with, I tried a few times to sit them down, to get their attention, and they’re almost militantly, like, No! You have to leave me alone; you can’t talk to me about this. I’m putting myself out there in the name of closure and I end up looking like a fool. Or I end up making the person even more angry. They’ve already moved on and they aren’t even concerned with having closure.
The other HSAMers I have met seem to share similar traits: the need for approval, seeking attention, putting themselves out there a little bit, maybe being a little sensitive to criticism and having issues with depression and closure. They are all contributing members of society and it doesn’t seem like any of us are so hindered that we’ve ceased to function like a normal person, but there is a commonality in that we seem to be a little more sensitive and we sometimes have trouble with our emotions and we can be more prone to depression and it must be related to the fact that we remember in the way we do.
What about from your childhood? Is there an example of a poignant memory that has stuck with you?
Fifth grade, gym glass. I wasn’t a particularly good athlete, I was made fun of and I was nerdy. We were playing soccer on September 19, 1995, which was a Tuesday. I remember so clearly that I didn’t do something right, I didn’t understand the rules of this soccer game, and the gym teacher looks at me and says, “What are you doing?!” and then I threw the ball to her, and she goes, “Not to me!” And she turned and stormed away.
Just recounting the story now, I’m feeling sadness and anger like I’m back in fifth grade. It plays into my insecurity that I was never the athlete that my father was and I was picked last for every gym team. Obviously, I’m fine and I don’t have to think about that memory every day but when I do think about it I feel sad and I’m right back there. I’m reminded not just of the teacher and the kids in that gym class siding with her but of feeling awkward and getting made fun of in or around that time period.
Do you tend dwell on a certain period of time?
Certain things might remind me of a particular bad memory and then I’m right back there. My life is full and busy so I’m not dwelling in those memories but even for a brief minute or two where I’m back there it’s almost like mini time-travel in the sense you’re almost in your 10-year-old skin again. I find it hard sometimes just to sit still; to just lie in my bed and exist. I’ll put in my earbuds and listen to music. I think I shy away from those moments of silence because when I do [have them] I think about the past.
How much detail do you remember from those loaded childhood memories?
It varies. Take the gym-class example. I couldn’t say with 100 percent accuracy what the weather was like that day, but I remember our gym shirts were blue and they had a white sticker on them. I remember we had these gray shorts, the soccer ball was a yellowish green, I remember exactly what the teacher looked like. In the case of the water-fountain example I don’t remember what the bully was wearing or what I was wearing, but I remember exactly what he said to me and I remember how I felt as I was walking back to the water fountain; I remember fighting back tears and I remember the hallway and the tiles on the floor. It’s like you’re emotionally time traveling, or as if your spirit is there, experiencing those feelings again.
Are there certain triggers for particular memories?
I guess it’s fairly common to think about a song that was popular when you were in high school or college or when you had your first kiss and remember that time. But I might be able to align a song with a specific date or if it’s a strong enough emotion I might think about a person or a thing or that period in my life. I remember the movie Titanic was really big when I was in seventh grade, in 1998. I saw it three times in the movie theater with my girlfriend and my friends. I remember the first time I saw it was with my then-seventh-grade girlfriend; it was Friday 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, and I remember there’s a scene where they are singing in church, it’s in the middle of the movie, when Leo DiCaprio tries to see Kate Winslet and all of Kate’s people are like, You can’t come in here; we’re in church, or whatever, and when I think of that scene I see my girlfriend’s image in my mind.
Here’s another example. There’s a song “The Power!” It was on the Jock Jams CD, and whenever I hear it I think of Glenn Close in Mars Attacks, the movie. This was late ‘96, early ‘97, and I was 12 at the time, and I remember I was on a plane and I was listening to a Discman with the Jock Jams soundtrack with that song playing. I recently saw both 101 Dalmatians and Mars Attacks, both of which star Glenn Close. More examples: There’s a Beastie Boys song, “Girls,” and the beginning of that song reminds me of January 24, 2003, at a school dance, but oddly enough I’m also reminded of a particular Friends episode, which had nothing to do with that song. “The One With the Ick Factor,” season one. In that episode, Monica ends up going out with a guy and they both lie about their age. I’m reminded of the actor who plays her boyfriend. I remember his name was Ethan in the show, but I don’t know the actor’s name. I’m reminded of him and I’m reminded of Courteney Cox when I hear that song, among other things, like the dance on January 24.
How does it play into trauma? Are you tortured by any memories?
Knock on wood, I’ve had many more good experiences than bad. The trauma that I’ve experienced has been pretty mundane.
Have you ever discussed your condition with a therapist?
I’ve seen therapists over the years and I haven’t talked in depth about the memory ability, but I would really like to do that. I’m generally very happy and optimistic, but I would like to talk about things like anger management and emotions that are a direct result of some of this baggage that I carry and I would like to do that through the lens of having HSAM. When I last saw a therapist, I wanted to discuss my need for closure but he didn’t quite understand. He was like, “You’ve got to get over it; you’ve got to move on, you can’t dwell.”
I think if he had a better understanding of how my mind and memory works he might not be so quick to judge. I think the term get over it is over-used and terrible. It’s a downright dis — a slap in the face. I can’t get over it. It’s there. These scholars of the mind don’t understand it unless they have it, and I don’t know if any therapist out there has HSAM but if they did they might understand. One of my colleagues suggested I see a therapist who understands neurobiology even if they don’t understand HSAM because at least they’d understand how memories are processed.
Have you ever used drugs or alcohol to mess with your memory?
I’ve dabbled in certain substances but never to forget. Getting drunk (and I’ve been drunk more than I’d like to admit) or smoking marijuana will affect my mind but it doesn’t eradicate the memories. I can still remember after the fact.
What would you say are the most positive aspects of your superior memory?
Despite its flaws, I feel overwhelmingly glad that I have this ability — it’s so unique. I know it sounds a little self-indulgent but I can play games and entertain myself endlessly. When I’m trying to fall asleep or when I’m walking down the streets of New York, just passing the time, or sitting in the park, I’ll think about what I was doing on this day a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Or I’ll pick a random date, say January 1 of any given year, and I’ll go through and see how much I can recall.
When I can’t remember a particular day I’ll think around it: I call it a “day sandwich.” I’ll inevitably get to the meat. Even though it’s hard to let go of painful things, the overwhelmingly good life that I’ve had is always there. And it reminds me of who I am now, who I was then and everything in-between. It’s a cornucopia of emotions when I go back and play the memory game. It allows a constant self-analysis. That said, you’d think I’d be this enlightened Buddha-type person, but I’m totally not. I love being able to remember in this fashion for many reasons. It’s a link to my past and I think it really helps me inevitably become a better person and it really helps me be grateful, I think, to who I am now. If I’m lost in thought sometimes I’ll think about the past and I’ll think about certain dates and times and I’ll sort of, you know, find myself smiling or chuckling inside. And gratefulness comes from that.
I have been lucky, to live in New York, for one. It’s always exciting. It lends itself to a lot of interesting scenarios with people and jobs and the things you experience. I can go back and laugh at myself and think, Oh my God, I can’t believe I thought that was important then, or remember that time my friend and I got drunk in high school and did this. It’s fun to be introspective in that way, I love that. It is a burden in that perhaps the bad memories stick in the same fashion as the good memories.
Is that the most troubling aspect?
I think it’s a combination of dwelling on things for longer than I ought to or the fact that analyzing memories from your past can make you a little bit critical of yourself. But maybe the worst part is the fact that I do not fully understand it. I’m left to ponder if the memory ability makes me more sensitive or if it just magnifies my sensitivity. There’s that constant question in my mind. I was 10 when I discovered my ability to name the day of the week, but I didn’t know that this ability was being scientifically studied until I was 26. Now I’m 30, and I still don’t understand it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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