Although Marilu Henner made her name playing gutsy, sexy, red-haired divorced mother Elaine O'Connor-Nardo on the TV series Taxi (1978-1983), she has a much more impressive claim to fame: Henner has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or H-SAM — the ability to recall the slightest details of nearly every day she has lived. There are 13 known cases worldwide.
Give Henner a year, and she'll tell you what day of the week her birthday was on. 1975? April 6 of that year fell on a Sunday, Henner instantly recalls. (In case you're wondering, it's also the day she turned 23.) Point out a pair of shoes in her closet, and she can recollect the day she purchased them: "These are old — Oct. 18, 2007."
Since November 2009, neurobiologist James McGaugh has been studying the uber-retentive memory of Henner and others in his research lab at the University of California, Irvine. His discoveries will be woven into the third season of Unforgettable when it returns to CBS on July 28. Poppy Montgomery plays memory-endowed New York police detective Carrie Wells and Mark Nelson plays an unmistakably McGaugh-like character named Eugene Lustig.
"I've had this memory since I was 5 years old," says Henner, "but I've exercised it through the years. So it's got a very strong nature, but it's also something I nurture — they're equal to me."
Henner, who recently raised $100,000 for the Alzheimer's Association, says people "can probably improve their brains" by sampling some of the "nurture" exercises she has devised (which McGaugh has also tested in his UC lab). "Things like crossword puzzles and sudoku are helpful for one part of your brain," she says. "But many different parts of the brain must be activated in order to retrieve a memory."
We asked Henner to share her tips for how you can tune up your memory.
1. Explore your 'primary track'
"Every person has one thing they remember better than any other thing in their life," says Henner. "This is what I call their 'primary track.' For some people, it's travel; for others it might be sports, relationships, food, places they've lived, jobs they've had, their children's lives or even certain television episodes." If your most vibrant memories are attached to travel, for example, think about the trips you've taken, "then start filling in the blanks."
2. Use your senses as powers of recall
"Once you've determined your primary track, cross-connect that with your dominant sense — sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. Let's say you took that trip in 1997; what music was popular then? If you have a strong auditory sense, it's amazing how many memories start to come back once you take this ride." Others will find certain odors (of food or perfume, for example) more evocative; still others cannot make memories blossom without using tactile or visual cues. "Trying out sense memories is an ongoing process," says Henner. "Don't do it all in a weekend, but meditate on it once in a while."
Next page: Marilu the "Sexygenarian." »