Marilu Henner Wows Gurnee with her Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)

Pop quiz, folks!

On which day of the week were you born?

What did you order for dinner on your very first date?

What did you do on this day exactly seven years ago? (No peeking at the Blackberry!)

If you’re having trouble with this quiz, there’s no need to worry, especially if you hung out with Marilu Henner your whole life. She could probably answer these questions for you.

You see, Marilu – the prolific actress and author (start humming the theme to “Taxi” if you need more context) – has a rare ability called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). About a dozen people in the United States have been identified with this super-cool capacity to recall every detail of one’s own life since childhood. In Marilu’s case, she can remember everything that’s happened to her since she was 18 months old.

Marilu came to the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee last night to share her story and promote her new book, Total Memory Makeover. She told us about growing up in Logan Square (yep, and her heart will always be with Chicago) while her parents ran a dancing school in their three-car garage and a beauty salon in their kitchen.

Marilu Henner (c) Carrie Steckl

She described her knack for remembering EVERYTHING since she was quite small and how this helped her gain an edge over her five siblings when they argued over who was right. And she detailed her discovery that there was a name for her condition when her memory was tested at the University of California — Irvine by Dr. James McGaugh and his research team.

Brain scans showed that Marilu’s brain “over-indexes in certain areas 7 – 10 times that of a normal brain.” While I want to know more about what this means, my husband asked what I thought was a pretty poignant question:

“What do you have to give up in order to have that ability?”

In Marilu’s book (which I have not read yet), she offers tips for improving memory by increasing awareness of one’s surroundings and experiences. She relies on her father’s advice that all experiences should follow three steps: anticipation, participation, and recollection. This was drilled into her way of being so that she’s made a habit of asking, “What am I looking forward to?” “What’s happening right now?” and “What are the details of what just happened?”

She suggests this kind of awareness is relevant for anyone and not just those with HSAM. I think it holds promise for caregivers as well.

Here’s what I mean. Caregiving is full of difficult and beautiful moments. Often, caregivers are so busy that the moments get lost in the midst of medical appointments, providing personal care, and attending to financial and legal matters. If caregivers start practicing “anticipation, participation, and recollection” they might not only feel more organized –they might be able to savor the beautiful moments longer, too.

Or in Marilu’s words, “Memory is the strongest defense against meaningless.”

The event raised quite a buzz in sleepy Gurnee. The room was packed and it was a lively conversation. One highlight was the man in the audience who stated he had dated Marilu’s sister. He and Marilu proceeded to recall adventures around the dinner table at the Henner household.

Marilu’s exuberance filled the room. Although I couldn’t find a reference online, I’m pretty sure I once read that Marilu only needs 4 – 5 hours of sleep a night because she has so much natural energy.

After seeing her last night, I believe it.


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  • Some things are better forgotten.

  • Dear Aquinas wired,

    Thanks so much for your comment. Interestingly, Marilu addressed this issue. She suggested that getting in touch with bad memories as well as good ones can help us make better choices in the future by identifying patterns, red flags, etc. I see her point, but I also agree with you that there are things I'd rather not think about ever again.

    I appreciate your thoughts!

    Take care,
    Dr. Chill

  • This is so fascinating, I can't imagine what it must be like to have this kind of memory. I have trouble remembering what I just read in this post.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    Dear Jimmy,

    I agree! I had never heard of HSAM before learning of Marilu's scheduled appearance. I was actually a bit skeptical until I read the research on the ability. I think it would be pretty overwhelming.

    Take care,
    Dr. Chill

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