Reporting Sara Pelissero
Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? OK, sure, you probably do. But do you remember what day your fifth birthday fell on and what you were wearing that day? Probably not. But Marilu Henner does.
It’s an extraordinary gift — one so special that only 12 people officially have it. Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory allows a person to remember moments and personal experiences in their lives down to specific details and exact dates. It’s different than photo-graphical memory — she said she can’t look at a piece of paper and immediately recall what it says. We’re talking about intimate memories.
For example, she can remember the exact day she was last in Minneapolis — what the weather was like that day, what day of the week it was, who she was with and what the inside of our Orpheum Theatre looks like. It’s hard to believe sometimes. I mean after all, some of those facts are hard to “fact check” but then she turns the tables on you.
“OK, give me your birthday,” she said.
“Nov. 1, 1983,” I reply.
“OK, so Nov. 1, 1983 — it was a Tuesday. Did you know that?” Henner said.
“I actually don’t think I did,” I say.
“It was a Tuesday. I know exactly what I was doing. I had just finished shooting ‘Johnny Dangerously,’” she said.
She then went on to correctly identify the exact day my 21st birthday fell on — Monday, Nov. 1, 2004. Crazy.
It’s this unique gift that has Henner on a national tour with her ninth book, “Total Memory Makeover,” (with a stop at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at the Mall of America) and a gift that continues to give — helping her teach others to contain their memory, helping her relate personal experiences in her acting career and landing her the role of consultant on the CBS hit show “Unforgettable,” about a woman with a memory much like her’s.
As her first stop back in the Twin Cities, Henner sat down and chatted with us about what it’s like to have such an in-depth memory and how she’s helping others to hang on to past moments.
Henner said she’s always known she’s had this gift but never knew it was rare.
“I’ve always been known for my memory. Even as a tiny girl, growing up in Chicago, 2, 3, 4, 5 years old, they’d call me the “Memory Kid” or “Miss Memory” or things like that,” she said. “So people would say to my parents, ‘What’s with that kid and her memory?’ It seemed so bizarre to people. So I knew I had the best memory in my family and then, sort of, the circle got bigger and I realized I had the best memory of anyone that I knew. But I figured, oh gosh, it must not be that rare, I’m sure a lot of people must have this memory.”
It wasn’t until she realized just how rare it was that she decided to do something about it. Henner started teaching classes and holding seminars on memory and how people can make the most of theirs.
“I know how my brain naturally works and I knew if I could somehow translate it into tips and theories for other people, then I could help other people tap into their autobiographical memories,” she said.
It wasn’t until an appearance on “60 Minutes” with others like her that everything really expanded — she wrote nine books on memory topics and became the go-to expert on the subject.
“It’s not just about the bad memories or cushioning them with good memories. You have a great story. Every single person has a fabulous story so why not access it and bring it into the present so that it can then inform the future,” she said.
Henner said one of her first memories was the day of her baptism. Her godmother was a nun, so she would constantly tell her about her baptism and the details that unfolded. While that was certainly reinforced over the years, Henner said she can remember it — and yes, people thought that was absurd.
“I tell people this now and, well, they used to think I was crazy but now they know I’m telling the truth,” she said.
In a way, working on your memory and enhancing it now is more important than ever, Henner said. As we continue living in a communication-dominated world with everyone texting, GPSing and speed dialing — it’s easy to flow through life without really thinking about it or taking it in, she said.
“We never really have to think about where are we, what are we doing,” she said. “One of the whole sections in my book is that people are sense-dominate. I know from teaching my classes that everyone has a sense of which they are most proficient so they are recording their memories and therefore able to retrieve their memories by playing to their dominate sense.”
Henner said visual people take in information in a visual or photographic way. If you’re a sound person, you’re going to remember conversations more vividly.
“Once you know what sense is dominate to you, play to those strengths,” she said.
She described four different types of memory retrieval — horizontal, vertical, mushrooming and sporadic — and how each of us collects memories in a different way, with no way being necessarily “correct.”
Horizontal memory retrieval, she said, is very linear, more chronological and in a point-to-point way (“We got there Friday night, I went for a jog on Saturday morning”) where vertical is a bit deeper, where you’re remembering details and specific conversations. Mushrooming refers to a bit of a tangent from the initial memory. Henner used the example of a wedding, so if she were to ask about the wedding itself, someone mushrooming memories might say, “Oh, I met a guy, we went out to dinner that night and now we’re working on a project together.”
Sporadic memories are those that retrieve other memories — so going back to the wedding example, a person might respond to a question about the wedding by saying, “There was a guy there who looked just like my old boss and I was instantly reminded of my old job.”
“In my classes, people would say, ‘I can’t really just stay on the one thing’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t, don’t worry about it. Your not going to control your memories. Just take the wild ride,’” Henner said.
Henner’s extensive memory — and knowledge of how memories work — also landed her a new job as a consultant to the CBS show, “Unforgettable.” Henner said she was asked to help with the show since the main character is based on someone with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and has been having a fantastic time adding her expertise — and let’s be honest, her credibility, which has already come in handy a few times.
She said she’s given the show ideas on how someone with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory would respond to certain scenarios — and even corrected them a time or two.
While watching a sneak peek of the show and what it will be like, Henner said she noticed something right away.
“I start watching it and the first thing is, a character says to Poppy’s character, Carrie, ‘Hey Carrie, show em that thing you do, March 27, 1998,’ so I’m thinking March 27, 1998, that was a Friday, I flew back from New York to Los Angeles, the night before I went to dinner at Picholine restaurant, I had the oysters and the white peppercorn soup, you know, I’m thinking this and all of a sudden she goes, ‘It was a Tuesday,’” Henner said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, no! It was a Friday, it wasn’t a Tuesday!’”
The writers changed it after a call from Henner, who assured them, yes, people will check it and see if it’s right.
Marilu Henner will be at the Mall of America for a book signing at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Check back to the Curiocity column next week for the second part of her two-part interview.