Understanding the gift of endless memory

Lesley Stahl reports on superior autobiographical memory

Enter Dr. James McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California Irvine, and a renowned expert on memory. Dr. McGaugh is the first to discover and study superior autobiographical memory, and he is quizzing Owen - his fifth subject - to find out.

"Let's move back in time now to 1990. It rained on several days in January and February, can you name the dates on which it rained?" McGaugh asked.

Believe it or not, she could.

"Let's see. It was slightly rainy and cloudy on January 14th, 15th. It was very hot the weekend of the 27th, 28th, no rain," she replied.

We checked the official weather records and she was right. McGaugh says this type of memory is completely new to science. So he and his colleagues have had to devise their own tests, like one on public events.

When asked what happened on Oct. 19, 1987, Owen said, "It was a Monday. That was the day of the big stock market crash, and the cellist Jacqueline du Pre died that day."

When asked on what day the Berlin Wall fell, Owen said, "November 9th, 1989, which was a Thursday."

She also correctly named the dates when Christopher Reeve had his riding accident (May 27, 1995), and the date of the 1999 Oscars (March 21).

"These people remember things that you and I couldn't possibly remember," McGaugh told Stahl.

"And they're not memorizing. There's no trick?" Stahl asked.

"They can do with their memories what you and I can do about yesterday," McGaugh said, "but, they can do it every day."

"And when I ask, 'What goes on in your brain? What goes on in your mind,' they give the very unsatisfying response, 'I just see it. It's just there,'" he told Stahl.

The first person ever identified with this ability is Jill Price, who says she feels haunted by the never-ending stream of memories and hasn't wanted to meet any of the others.

Next was Brad Williams, a radio news anchor and reporter from La Crosse, Wis., who isn't bothered by his memory. He says it comes in handy at work and playing trivia games.

The third was Rick Baron, from Cleveland. He told Stahl he remembers every movie he has ever seen and also remembers when television shows started, including "60 Minutes."

"Tuesday, September 24th, '68. The first Sunday show was September 19th '71," he explained.

Then there is Bob Petrella, a TV producer and writer who serves as the collective memory, and sometimes the evening entertainment for his friends.

"I must confess that when I first heard about this research, what surprised me was not that this condition existed, but that it was so rare. That's because it sounded like a description of a friend of mine, the actress Marilu Henner, a star of the hit TV show 'Taxi'; She lives with her husband and two sons from a prior marriage in Los Angeles," Stahl said.

Stahl and Henner have known each other 25 years. "I can rattle off almost every single time I've seen you," Henner said.

"Do you remember when we went to 'Aureole,' the restaurant? That was '93," Henner said. "That was June 1st. A Tuesday."

Asked what they ate, Henner said, "I had the salmon."