Superior Autobiographical Memory: Marilu Henner and Other Amazing Brains

Sixty Minutes did a story this week (December 19, 2010) on something known by neurobiologists, like Dr. James McGaugh, professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine, as “superior autobiographical memory.”  Lesley Stahl interviewed five individuals, including Taxi actress, Marilu Henner, who are among the only known people to possess this rare ability:  the ability to remember what happened on every day of one’s life in detail.

This amazing gift might seem like a curse in some cases, as when a loved one dies, or when a significant other breaks up with you.  However, according to the Lesley Stahl’s report, these super-memory individuals can compartmentalize their memories, like a file cabinet, and call on them as needed, but disregard them in situations where they are a hindrance.

While Marilu Henner, Louise Owen, and their fellow super-memories might be wonderful for trivia and parties, the study of such optimal brain performance holds great interest for science as well.  Scientists proceeded to perform MRI scans on them and discovered that they had two areas of their brains enlarged by seven to eight standard deviations:  the temporal lobe and the caudate nucleus.

The temporal lobe is the section of brain neurobiologists think has to do with storing new memories.  The caudate nucleus has to do with memory, learning, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a trait common in all five subjects to some degree.

By studying these individuals, scientists hope to help cure memory diseases like Alzheimer’s and help people in general who have memory problems.  Dr. McGaugh, raised another important point, “the chicken or the egg problem,” as he calls it.  The question is, are these regions bigger because they have extraordinary memories, and by using them, Marilu Henner and Louise Owen exercised their brains, or do they have amazing recall because their brains were like this from the beginning?

If the answer is exercising the brain improves memory, then fields like neurofeedback, designed specifically as brain exercise technologies, will continue to make a difference in the lives of those neurofeedback therapists treat.  Not only can neurofeedback reduce anxiety, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress, all contributing factors to memory loss, but it might also help improve memory through the mental exercise it provides.

The brain continues to provide science with amazing new discoveries, as explorers delve deeper into its chemistry, abilities, and how we as individuals can change the way our brains function.  From neurobiology to biofeedback eeg, scientific research on brain function and clinical research on how we can change that function to improve our daily lives is critical not only to trivia contests, but ultimately to our health and happiness.

If you’re dealing with an issue like this, I would be happy to help.  Please reach out by calling my office at 310-314-6933 or sending me a private email.

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