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Currently, researchers at UC-Irvine are breaking new ground on a condition known as "superior autobiographical memory." A man with SAM can recall in detail everything that has ever happened to him on precise dates, going back decades, as if they'd just happened the day before — though this impressive recall seems limited to the details of his own life. James McGaugh, who heads the study, says that although most of his 50 subjects enjoy this special ability, at least one finds it deeply troubling.
"She's had a lot of bad memories," says McGaugh. "They plague her."
At first glance during his early testing of the Jeopardy! champs, Roediger says he sees signs of the same kind of "laser-like" focus that came through for the memory athletes. Not surprisingly, the quiz-show winners do quite well on a 45-minute trivia test, but they also seem to avoid the mind booby traps on tests like the Stroop Color-Word task. At the same time, they are merely average when it comes to memorizing long lists of words and digits.
"We think of them as having their own special ability, and we don't know what it is," he says. "Nobody has studied these people at all."
In his stately office, the bookshelves piled to the ceiling with titles promising to improve one's memory, Roediger concedes he's noticed signs of his own memory faltering.
"I do have name-finding difficulty. That's the first thing to go in older adults," he says. "Strangely, it is restaurants. I'll say, 'Let's go to somewhere.' I'll have it perfectly envisioned in my mind and then not be able to come up with a name. It's annoying."
This is, of course, where the two disciplines of studying memory success and memory failure meet. The dream would ultimately be to save us from, not just the day-to-day perils of forgetting to buy milk or putting a toilet seat down, but from memory deterioration due to accidents, illness and age.
Roediger doesn't get sentimental about his own memories, nor grandiose about whether his research will be able to stave off his or anyone else's memory loss. As for the memory athletes themselves, their ambitions for their skills range quite a bit.
Brad Zupp incorporated teaching the techniques into his act long ago, with the hope that kids who struggle with rote memorization in school will find his methods helpful. Chester Santos bills himself as "The International Man of Memory" and travels the globe giving talks to corporations and business leaders on how to make flawless presentations without notes, or remember important people after just one meeting. Nelson Dellis does one-on-one coaching and is the spokesperson for two memory-related companies (health supplements and data servers), but dreams of one day being commissioned by professional sports teams to help, say, a new NFL quarterback memorize his Bible-thick stack of plays.
He has also started a charity that marries his two passions — memory training and mountaineering. It's called Climb for Memory, and it seeks to raise awareness and funds for studying Alzheimer's. As he has often remarked, Dellis began pursuing memory training in the first place because of his own grandmother's descent into dementia.
"I wanted to see if there was anything I could do for my own mind," he says.
Roediger says there's a controversial theory that supposes that building up one's skill as a memorizer, or "cognitive reserve," could stave off the outward signs of dementia — that it's worthwhile to be an ant stockpiling brain cells for winter while the rest of the grasshoppers sing. But it's totally unproven, and as of today, none of the world's memory champions is old enough to prove that their cerebral stockpile is keeping them free of dementia.
Roediger sounds skeptical but cautiously open-minded to the idea that Dellis, or anyone else, could save himself from such a fate.
"That would be the great hope," says Roediger. "Maybe he will. Nobody knows."
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