A 40-year-old woman who is being studied by neurobiologists because of her near-perfect memory says her ability to recall nearly every detail in her life is a gift that she wouldn't want to lose. But like all the rest of us, when she goes to the store she sometimes forgets something she meant to buy.
The woman, called simply "AJ" by the researchers to protect her privacy, has become a bit of an international celebrity since her story was revealed a couple of weeks ago by scientists at the University of California at Irvine. But she has declined numerous requests for interviews.
She did consent, however, to answer a few questions from ABCNEWS.com users that were forwarded to her through neurobiologist James L. McGaugh, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a pioneer in memory research.
"AJ" has been studied for the past five years by McGaugh and two other scientists at Irvine, Elizabeth Parker, a clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology, and Larry Cahill, an associate professor of neurobiology and behavior.
So far, they have been unable to determine why she has such an extraordinary memory, but further studies, including brain scans, are planned.
She is quite different from some extraordinary individuals who are able to recall such things as the specific day that any date fell on, and major news events of that day. In most cases, those with that kind of ability suffer some losses in other areas.
That includes the much celebrated case of a Russian patient called "S," who had a terrific memory but suffered from a condition known as synesthesia, in which sounds have a distinct smell, and colors have a certain taste.
Synesthesia proved tragic for "S," eventually making it difficult for him to function. Interestingly, "AJ" says she has "a bit of this condition," but it has not made her life more difficult.
Her life actually sounds pretty routine. She goes to work like the rest of us, wasn't particularly outstanding in school, and finds her gift a useful device for entertaining friends.
What seems to govern partly her ability to remember details of the past is whether she found them interesting. She wasn't a scholar, she says, because she found school boring.
But her memory is remarkable.
In 2003, for example, she was asked by the researchers to write down all the Easter dates from 1980 on. She wrote all 24 dates in 10 minutes and included what she was doing on each of those dates, but she was off by a couple of days on one of them. Two years later, when she was asked without warning to do it again, she got them all right.
The most frequent question ABCNEWS.com received since first writing about "AJ" is how far back here memories go. Did she remember her birth?
No, she says.
"My first memory is of me, in the crib, about 18 months old, and being woken up by my uncle's dog."
Below are some of the questions that she answered through McGaugh.
Question: This extraordinary ability has undoubtedly had a dramatic effect on your life. Do you consider it a blessing or a curse?
Answer: I think of it as my life's burden, but as I have gotten older I have come to realize that I would not want to change it.
This is me!
Question: How has it affected your relationship with others?
Answer: It does not have an effect on any of my relationships. What it is, though, is a wonderful conversation piece and I also love to surprise people with my remembering ability.
Question: We know from the research that you lead a normal life, but can you tell us something about your daily routine, like the type of work you do?
Answer: I am an administrator in a private corporation and I work A LOT.
Question: Are you married, and does this have an effect on your relationship with your husband, if there is one?
Answer: When I first met my husband he was a bit surprised and puzzled by this, especially when I told him what day his close relatives were born (after he gave me their birth dates, of course), but he loves to brag to people about me. Contrary to what I have read about myself in some blogs, I have never used my "memory" against my husband.
Question: Does this ability make anything easier, or harder, for you? Did it, for example, affect your academic achievements?
Answer: I was not an excellent student like everyone thinks I would be. In fact, I was bored by school and never really liked it.
Question: Are there some things you would like to forget, but can't?
Answer: THERE SURE ARE!!!!!!!!!!
Question: Are there some things you've had difficulty remembering? If so, can you describe one or two?
Answer: When it comes to work, or even when I need to go to the store, I always have to make my lists, or I will not get everything done.
Question: Are you conscious of making a special effort to remember some things?
Answer: I don't have to make an effort to remember. I just do.
Question: Why do you think you have this special ability?
Answer: I HAVE NO CLUE!!! Would love to know, and that is why I contacted the doctors in the first place.