Watch CBS News

Pittsburgh-Area Natives Part Of Super Memory Study

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Do you remember what you did on May 13, 1998? Do you remember that it was a Wednesday? What about what you wore that day?

It seems ludicrous to even ask. But a small number of people can remember - not just one day, but many of the days of their lives. They have super memory.

Chris Lowe is part of a national study on this. What he can remember is truly amazing, and scientists are trying to figure out how it is possible.

They're hopeful that understanding it may help all of us.

You remember the big moments in life - your wedding day, the birth of a child - but when it comes to what happens every single day, those moments tend to fade except for a small group of people, including Lowe.

David Highfield: "May 14th 1998?"

Lowe: "That was a Thursday. I came back from London that day, and I got home in time to watch the last episode of Seinfeld. And I got the word that Frank Sinatra had died."

Highfield: "Feb. 11, 2001?"

Lowe: "Heinz Field, not Heinz Field - Three Rivers Stadium imploded."

Highfield: "Aug. 31, 1997?"

Lowe: "Sunday. That's where… when Princess Diana died. Steelers lost to the Cowboys that day - don't know the score."

Lowe grew up in Bentleyville and he was 13 when he says his extraordinary memory somehow kicked in. That would be the summer of 1984, which he remembers well.

"Aug 14. Saw 'Red Dawn,' said Lowe. "Aug. 20, got hit in the head with a porch swing."

Thousands of miles away, at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. James McGaugh has discovered something called superior autobiographical memory.

"I didn't know that anyone had this ability, and it's remarkable," Dr. McGaugh.

The initial group he's studying was featured on "60 Minutes," including actress Marilu Henner, who told Leslie Stahl she can even remember the first day she wore many of her shoes.

McGaugh's study flew Lowe out to California where he was tested, and sure enough, he has it too.

People with this can go back in their memory to tell you what day of the week a certain date was, but Lowe can do something more.

He can do it for dates well before he was even born.

Highfield: "Sept. 9, 1893?"

Lowe: "Oh that was a Saturday, that was a Saturday."

There are formulas online for how to calculate this, but Lowe's not aware of how he's able to do it.

Highfield: "When you're mentally picturing that, do you see like a grid?"

Lowe: "The best way I can describe it is 'Pop Up Video.' I'd say a lot of times it just pops in there."

He's talking about the show on VH1 where bubbles of information pop onto the screen.

By doing brain scans of people with this type of memory, Dr. McGaugh has found their brains are different than ours. Two parts of their brains are actually bigger.

He's also found they have more obsessive tendencies. For instance, Lowe is a bit of a germ-a-phobe. After touching a door handle, he had to go wash his hands immediately.

At restaurants, he won't touch salt or pepper shakers. He calls his memory a gift but says it can also be a curse.

"It's absolutely exhausting at times," he said. "My mind is constantly going."

He would love to understand why his brain works the way it does. And it may be possible that understanding why could eventually help people with Alzheimer's and other memory problems.

The CBS show "Unforgettable" is about a detective with superior autobiographical memory; but for Bob Petrella, it's no TV show, it's real life.

Highfield: "Easter 1983. Would you remember the date?"

Petrella: "Yes it was April 3."

But Petrella is particularly impressive when it comes to sports.

Highfield: "Game 4 of the 1979 World Series?"

Petrella: "Yeah, that was Oct. 13, 1979. I think Stargell hit a home run early in the game, but then the Orioles came back and just pounded."

Highfield: "What happened on Sept. 20, 2009?"

Petrella: "I know the Steelers lost. They lost to the Bears in Chicago."

He lives in Los Angeles now, but Petrella grew up in Beaver County. By age 17, he realized he remembers things others can't.

Highfield: "Tell me about the fourth time the Steelers won the Super Bowl."

Petrella: "That was Jan. 20, 1980 - that was in Pasadena. I had just moved to L.A."

And he remembers the details.

Petrella: "They were behind late in the game. I think about 10 minutes left in the game when Terry Bradshaw… they were behind 19 -17 when Terry Bradshaw threw a 73-yard touchdown to John Stallworth."

He's also part of a national study at the University of California, Irvine of people with this rare type memory.

"Sometimes it feels like too cramped or crowded," Petrella said. "There's so many things rolling around up there."

Petrella has written the book, a collection of the most memorable dates of his life. And, if you happen to see him, ask him about a date because he enjoys getting quizzed.

"I like entertaining with it," he said. "I like making it fun."

60 Minutes: "The Gift of Endless Memory"
More Featured Stories

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.