LOS ANGELES (CBS) — In the CBS crime mystery series “Unforgettable,” Poppy Montgomery plays a female police detective Carrie Wells, who has a rare medical condition that gives her the ability to visually remember everything.

Bob Patrella of West L.A. has that ability in real life.

“This is Super Bowl 40, which was played February 5, 2006. The Steelers won 21 to 10 over Seattle,” he said referring to a Super Bowl championship hat.

It’s called hyperthymesia or highly superior autobiographical memory. It is a medical condition that allows people like Bob to remember in great detail events in their lives.

“Most people might remember two or three days out of the year in a certain year, I remember maybe 100 to 200 out of the year,” he said. “It’s all driven by emotion.”

“It’s something I remember. It’s not a formula, it’s not autistic, it’s not photographic.” Patrella added.

He first realized he had this special ability at an early age.

“I think I remember all my birthdays since I was five, except for two of them. What I did and who I was with.”

When I told him that my daughter was born on August 26, 1986, he immediately knew the day of the week.

“That was a Tuesday,” he said, adding, “I was working a temp job, I remember, for a mortgage banking company. It’s kind of like Google maps. You say August 26, 1986, so I see 86. I see the whole year, then I see August and then I see August [26] and, oh, it’s a Tuesday.

He was right.

“It’s a not a type of memory, it’s a characterization of memory,” said Dr. James McGaugh, a U.C. Irvine neuroscientist, who is getting into the heads of people with super memory.

“They look to us for an explanation, which will help them understand why they are different from their family members and their friends,” Dr. McGaugh said.

Since 2000, the University of California Irvine study of highly superior autobiographical memory has discovered more people with this unique ability. It is the first study in history to look at memory in such a way.

“We have access now to probably 50 subjects. We studied 11 of them pretty intensively,” Dr. McGaugh said.

“They found out the part of our brain, the caudate nuclei, that retains memory is seven times larger than the average person, which is like kind of like being 10 feet tall relatively speaking,” Patrella said.

“This is more of an event memory. This is something happened. If we can understand how individuals can do this, we might have some new clues to the fundamental memory processes,” Dr. McGaugh said. “Scientist and clinicians are going to be able to take care of disorders learning and memory because of the knowledge this generated about how the brain works to create and maintain memories.”

“If the study that they did on me would help prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia, that’s a pretty cool legacy,” Patrella said.

For more information on the U.C. Irvine study, visit the following links.

UC Irvine: UCI Scientists Study People Who Can’t Forget

Neurocase (2006): A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering (PDF)


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