Memory Wizards

Imagine being able to remember virtually every day of your life. As Lesley Stahl reports, it’s a kind of memory that is brand new to science

The following script is from "Memory Wizards" which aired on Jan. 12, 2014. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shari Finkelstein, producer.

You may -- or may not -- recall that a few years back, we brought you a story about a handful of people with memories that are almost unimaginable: name virtually any date in their lives, and they can tell you what they were doing that day, the day of the week, sometimes even the weather -- all within seconds.  It’s a kind of memory that is brand new to science -- literally unheard of just a decade ago.

After our story aired, the scientists studying this phenomenon were flooded with calls and emails. We were so intrigued, we decided to follow the research to see what further study might reveal about these remarkable memories and what it may mean for the rest of us. They now have many more subjects, including a 10-year-old boy.


To view Lesley Stahl's original 2010 report, "Endless Memory," click here


But first, meet -- or refresh your memory of -- our original memory wizards. 

OriginalGroup.jpg
Clockwise from far left: Bob Petrella, Rick Baron, Brad Williams, Marilu Henner and Louise Owen
CBS News
 Dr. James McGaugh: A 7.1 earthquake hit the San Francisco-Oakland area on?

All: October 17th, 1989.

Bob Petrella: Tuesday.

Marilu Henner: I remember we were watching the game of the World Series.

Aurora: When were the Oscars held in 1999?

Louise Owen: In 1999?  Sunday, March 21st.

Aurora: Yes.  Perfect.

They remember what they did...

Louise Owen: I went to a fabulous Oscar party that day.

What they care about...

Lesley Stahl: When was the last time the Redskins beat the Steelers?

Bob Petrella: Hmm. Oh, in '91. November 17th, 1991.

Sometimes even the shoes they wore.

Marilu Henner: These I wore on April the 21st of this year, so that was a Tuesday.

Marilu Henner: Oh, these shoes I got a long time ago… 

It’s the way most of us remember yesterday.

Marilu Henner: 1982.  I got them. April the 9th, so that was a Friday, of 1982.

Dr. James McGaugh:  This is a detective story.

The scientist who first identified this condition and has been studying it ever since, is Dr. James McGaugh at the University of California Irvine. An eye condition requires him to wear a clouded lens.

Dr. James McGaugh: We are pretending that we are Sherlock Holmes. We've arrived on the scene of a crime of something that's unusual. All of a sudden, we have a new phenomenon of memory, and we’re trying to figure out how it is that this happened.

When we did our first story, only six people in the world had been identified with this ability, one of them by chance the actress Marilu Henner.  But that number changed quickly.

 Lesley Stahl: OK, quiz. What's the date that that story first aired?

Several: December 19th, 2010—

"We are pretending that we are Sherlock Holmes. We've arrived on the scene of a crime of something that's unusual. All of a sudden, we have a new phenomenon of memory, and we’re trying to figure out how it is that this happened."

Lesley Stahl: What day of the week was it?

Several: Sunday.

Joey DeGrandis, Bill Brown, Tracy Fersan, and Jerrard Heard are among the 50 new subjects. 

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Clockwise from left: Joey DeGrandis, Tracy Fersan, Jerrard Heard and Bill Brown
CBS News
 Lesley Stahl: All right, what happened on June 25th, 2009?

Several: Michael Jackson—

Tracy Fersan: Michael Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett died, too—

Bill Brown: Farrah Fawcett, that morning.

Tracy Fersan: They both died the same day.

And when they think about those days, they actually relive them.

Tracy Fersan: It’s not just a question of numbers, dates and times.  It’s emotion.  And so, you know, when we wake up on that certain day of the year, it’s kind of like how everybody wakes up feeling on 9/11.

Lesley Stahl: Do you even know that when I think of something five years ago, I don't have much emotion attached to it?

Bill Brown: I can't even relate to that.

Several: Yeah.

"It’s not just a question of numbers, dates and times.  It’s emotion.  And so, you know, when we wake up on that certain day of the year, it’s kind of like how everybody wakes up feeling on 9/11."

Bill Brown: I don't even understand that.

Lesley Stahl: So, Joe, how old were you when you first realized that you could do this?

Joey DeGrandis: I was about 10 years old. It was the fall of '94.

Lesley Stahl: It was a Tuesday.

[Man: How’s it going so far? You tricking people?]

Joey DeGrandis: We had a fourth grade magic show at the very end of the year. It was Thursday, June 1st, of '95. And I remember-- like the week before, you know, trying to think of, "What-- what am I gonna do? I'm not a magician. My mom said to me, "Why don't you-- why don't you do your date thing? You know, just blow some calendars up behind you. You know, stand with your back facing the calendars, and when people come by, ask them to pick a date." And that's what I did.

Joey The Magian.jpg
Joey DeGrandis, 1995
 [Man: OK, how ‘bout if we pick, um, Jan. 8th, 1993?

Joey DeGrandis: Friday.

Man: How ‘bout Dec. 15, 1993?

Joey DeGrandis: Wednesday.

Man: How ‘bout Feb. 9th, 1994?

Joey DeGrandis: Uh, Wednesday again.

Man: Correct.]

Until now, Joey’s videotape was the closest the researchers had come to seeing this ability in a child.

Enter Jake Hausler, age 10.

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Jake Hausler
CBS News
 Lesley Stahl: What day of the week was Halloween 2011?

Jake Hausler: Monday. That one I didn't even have to think about.

Lesley Stahl: New Year's Day 2010.

Jake Hausler: Friday.

Lesley Stahl: Friday.

Jake Hausler: I remember that 'cause I was up all night at the Blues game.

That’s when Jake was 6. He lives in St. Louis, loves sports and is, in most respects, a typical 10-year-old.  

Lesley Stahl: What happened related to school on January 30th, 2013?

Jake Hausler: --that day. I'm pretty sure-- oh, wait. That's a trick question.

We didn't have school that day. Yeah, there was a huge lightning storm that last night. I'm like, "Hey, we didn't have school that day."

Jake’s parents, Sari and Eric Hausler, and his older brother Ben, say they knew something was up with Jake’s memory when he was only three and he had memorized the inspection stickers on the neighbors’ cars. Then he started with the dates.

Sari Hausler: We'd be driving in the car and we'd be talking about a past event and he would say, "Oh that was a Tuesday."

And there was the time the family dog threw up in her crate.

Sari Hausler: He says to me, "Well mom, tomorrow would be a year since the last time she threw up in her crate."

Jake Hausler: I remember the first time was Thursday, May 10th, 2012.

Sari Hausler: I mean, he just--

Lesley Stahl: Wow.

Sari Hausler: --has a lotta things that are stuck in his head.

Eric Hausler: A lot in there.

Lesley Stahl: What did you think was going on?

Sari Hausler: We didn't know.

Eric Hausler: Not really sure.

They heard about Dr. McGaugh’s research from our first story and brought Jake out to Irvine for testing.  Dr. McGaugh says seeing this ability in a child firsthand is significant.

[Kid on beanbag: What did you have for breakfast on Jan. 1st, 2013?

Jake Hausler: It was actually pancakes.]

We wondered if seeing it this early proves it’s innate?  Well, take a look at this.

Dr. James McGaugh: May 27th 2012. Do you know what day of the week that was?

Tyler Hickenbottom: That was a Sunday.

Dr. James McGaugh: You’re right.

There is exactly one child in the world other than Jake who’s been identified so far with this ability – 11-year-old Tyler Hickenbottom.  And in a fortuitous coincidence, Tyler happens to be an identical twin. He and his brother Chad share the same genes.

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Tyler Hickenbottom, left, and twin, Chad
CBS News
 Chad Hickenbottom: I think I might have worn an orange shirt.

But surprisingly, not the same memory.

Tyler Hickenbottom: No, that was in 2012 when you had to wear the neon shirt.

Dr. McGaugh and his team haven’t scanned Chad and Tyler’s brains yet to see what secrets they might hold, but they have put Jake into an MRI scanner, as well as many of the adults. The latest findings show a more active pathway between the front and back of the brain. 

Dr. James McGaugh: That would say that the reason that they can do that, in part, might be because the different parts of the brain have greater access to each other. And so that is exciting. And we're gonna have to explore that in more detail.

In the meantime, McGaugh and his team have made some surprising new discoveries in their low-tech testing. They showed the memory wizards a short film about a dinner party, and later gave them a memory test.

Dr. James McGaugh: How many coffee mugs were on the kitchen table in the opening scene?

Bill Brown: I don't know.

Jerrard Heard: None?

Joey DeGrandis: I'm gonna guess four.

Aurora: The answer's one.

Dr. James McGaugh: The surprising thing is they are no better than the rest of us in memory of that film. Now their explanation for this is that they didn’t live that -- in other words they’re just watching it, that was not their life.

 But even when it comes to their own lives, there have been some unexpected findings. In a new test, McGaugh’s team asked the wizards – as well as non-wizards like me – to go back day by day to see how much we remember.

Lesley Stahl: So yesterday I went to the gym.

Marilu Henner: For breakfast I had pineapple and some papaya… 

Joey: I remember waking up at 9:22 actually.

Lesley Stahl: I remember exactly what I had for lunch.  I remember-- I could tell you in rich detail.

Dr. James McGaugh: In memory of what happened yesterday-- we are as good as they are. That surprised me. But we have pretty good memories of yesterday. A couple days later, they’re-- we're almost as good as they are.

Lesley Stahl: And I remember Sunday quite well.

Bob Petrella: And then at 10 o’clock I had a banana.

Marilu Henner: I really had to go to the bathroom, so we had to…

Dr. James McGaugh: But their rate of forgetting is very small and ours is large.  So by the time we get to a week, we're very different in our memories. And we get to a month and they are still almost as good as they were a week afterwards. And we've gone to almost zero. They are not exceptional learners. They are very poor forgetters.

Lesley Stahl (voiceover): I was definitely a strong forgetter – I couldn’t remember anything when I got to the end of the previous week.

Lesley Stahl: [trying to remember] Thursday and Friday? Wow.

But is it really that we forget? Watch what happened after my test, when my 60 Minutes colleagues reminded me that the Thursday and Friday I’d been struggling with, we had been together shooting a story.

Lesley Stahl: Was that Thursday and Friday?

Lesley Stahl: When I was prompted, then I remembered in great detail. I just couldn't bring it up.

Dr. James McGaugh: Right-- you are-- have arrived at what we think is the most critical issue in this research.// Do they have in their brains retrieval mechanisms for memory that we don't have? Now if that's the case, that would suggest the possibility that we have all those memories. We're just like them, but we don't have the hooks to get the memories out. Wouldn't that be interesting? If that were the case, the possibility would be that we could do something which would make those memories come out better. Wouldn't that be exciting?

But that raises an important question -- would we really want to remember it all? 

Lesley Stahl: What is the hardest part of having this kind of memory?

Jake Hausler: The worst thing is that I can remember every bad thing that happened to me--

Lesley Stahl: You remember every bad thing.

Jake Hausler: I remember this from "The Lion King." (sings) "Leave the past behind." But I can't do that.

Lesley Stahl: But do you think you have to learn how to make it fade?

Jake Hausler: It's probably gonna be hard to—

Lesley Stahl: To let it go.

Jake Hausler: Because I can't forget it.

Eric Hausler: We were in New Jersey this summer on vacation.  And he woke up one day and he said-- "This was a really bad day last year because you yelled at me."

Lesley Stahl: Oh, my gosh.

Eric Hausler: Yeah, as a father you go, "Aw, geez, I didn't-- remember. What did I say. What-- what was it--"

Lesley Stahl: But he said it's a bad day—

Eric Hausler: Breaks your heart.

Sari Hausler: I think for us, time heals. Or at least lessens it. And I feel that for them it probably doesn't.

Jake Hausler: I can't let it fade because I just have that type of memory that can remember everything.

We thought it might help Jake to meet some other people with “that type of memory.”

Marilu Henner: So cute -- look at you!  Oh my gosh, are you darling! 

So we brought him together with Louise Owen, Bob Petrella, and Marilu Henner. To break the ice, Bob asked Jake about sports.

Bob Petrella: So Oct. 27, 2011.

Jake: (laughs) Oct. 27, 2011.

Bob Petrella: Think about it -- if you’re a Cardinals fan you should know that.

Jake Hausler: Game 6. 

Bob Petrella: That’s it.

Jake Hausler: Give it up, baby, give it up, baby.

Bob Petrella: Who hit the key hit?

Jake Hausler: Dave Freese.

Bob Petrella: That’s it. Yeah.

Jake Hausler: Center field.

Bob Petrella: Alright, he’s validated. 

It was like a super-memory summit.

Jake with Originals.jpg
Clockwise from left: Jake Hausler, Lesley Stahl, Louise Owen, Marilu Henner and Bob Petrella
CBS News
 Lesley Stahl: Is it as if you're living it again, as opposed to, for me, kind of a two-dimensional memory?

Louise Owen: For me it is. I mean, you say the date and I'm there, as though it happened moments ago, rather than 28 years ago.

Lesley Stahl: And that is both emotionally and smelling and touching?

Louise Owen: It really feels like-- time travel.

Marilu Henner: --the whole thing, is right there.

Bob Petrella: Yeah. It-- you can feel-- you can almost feel the clothes you were wearing.

Marilu Henner: Exactly.

Jake Hausler: I can do that.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think it's sad that the rest of us lose so much memory of our own lives? Do you feel—

Louise Owen: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: --sorry for us?

Louise Owen: I do.

Lesley Stahl: You do?

Louise Owen: I do.

Louise said she feels her memory is a gift, and she had some encouragement for the newest member of the memory club.

Louise Owen: I think it's like having a super power. And, you know, you can be normal—

Jake Hausler: Superior!

Louise Owen: --yeah, you can be Clark Kent. You can sort of blend in with everybody else. But then, when you really need to fly, you can totally fly. And it's awesome.

Lesley Stahl: On balance, taking your life, are you glad you have this memory? Or you wish you didn't have this memory?

Jake Hausler: I'm glad.

Lesley Stahl: You’re glad on balance.

Jake Hausler: Yeah.


  • Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.

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