Understanding the gift of endless memory

Lesley Stahl reports on superior autobiographical memory

This story was first published Dec. 19, 2010. It was updated on June 17, 2011.

It is often said that we are our memories - that web of experiences, relationships, thoughts, and feelings that make us who we are. We don't remember it all, of course. That would be impossible. Or would it?

There has been a discovery in the field of memory recently, so new it's just beginning to appear in textbooks. It's so hard to fathom, there are some who remain unconvinced.

For the moment, the scientists studying it are simply calling it "superior autobiographical memory." And as we first reported in December, unless you happen to know one of the handful of people discovered so far who have it, get ready to be amazed.

Louise Owen is 37 years old and a professional violinist living in New York City. But she has another gift too, one that is far more rare.

When correspondent Lesley Stahl mentioned a date, Jan. 2, 1990, Owen told her, "Right now, I'm remembering the jogging class that I started that morning."

Marilu Henner's Super-Memory Summit
Actress Marilu Henner is among the handful of people who can remember every moment of their lives.

"And you're actually back there?" Stahl asked.

"I can feel it. I can remember the coach saying, 'Keep going,'" Owen remembered.

That was more than 20 years ago, when she was 16, a date Stahl picked completely at random.

Stahl randomly picked another date, Feb. 18, 1988.

"It was a Thursday. I had a big conversation with a friend of mine, and that's all I'm gonna say," Owen replied.

Owen told Stahl she can remember every day of her life since the age of 11.

"Try to talk us through, can you do that, how...it works? Out of the air, April 21st, 1991," Stahl asked.

"1991, okay. April 21st. So, in the moment between 'April 21st' and '1991,' I have scrolled through 25 April 21sts, thinking, 'Which one is it going to be? Which one is it going to be?' Okay, 1991, which was a Sunday. And I was in Los Angeles, and I had a concert with the American Youth Symphony," Owen replied.

Extra: Marilu Henner and "time traveling"
Extra: Memory quiz time
University of California Irvine
Documentary: "Unforgettable"

"You went to the most important thing that happened that day," Stahl remarked.

"Right. That was the most, I mean, you probably don't want to hear about, you know, sort of the daily 'Oh, I got up in the morning. And I got dressed,'" Owen said.

Asked if she could remember what she was having for lunch, Owen told Stahl, "Not what I had for lunch that day. But I do remember what I had for dinner the night before."

"And effortless? It just pops in?" Stahl asked.

"Right," Owen said. "I mean, for me, it's almost as automatic as if you say, 'What is your name and where do you live?'"

But how do we know that what she says she remembers really happened?

Produced by Shari Finkelstein

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes