Monday, September 05, 2011

60 Minutes reporter stuffs up and the name of hyperthymestic syndrome changed again but still no recognition from US of link with synaesthesia

Did you see 60 Minutes last night? I'm talking about the stupid and popular Australian version of the American show, which is also, no doubt, every bit as stupid and popular. It's a sad fact that stupid and popular inevitably go together. That's why I try to avoid best-selling books and blockbuster movies and television shows that are broadcast between 8.00pm to 10.30pm on commercial channels. But it is still a good idea to know what bent, twisted and horribly mutilated accounts of current affairs The Masses are watching. This is just about as far as I want to get to knowing what's inside the mind of the man in the street.

So I was watching 60 Minutes and I was surprised to see the return to Australian television of Jill Price, one of the most interesting famous synesthetes whom I have written about in my big list of famous synaesthetes. Price was featured in a story on the ABC's fairly stupid and popular science TV series Catalyst in 2009. Price became famous in 2006 as the subject of a neuropsychological case study which was written up in the medical journal Neurocase. She was identified by US researchers as the world's first identified case of a new syndrome of superior autobiographical memory which was then given the name "hyperthymestic syndrome". Since then, for some reason, the name of this syndrome has been changed twice. It went from "hyperthymestic syndrome" to "hyperthymesia" and now it's being labelled as "superior autobiographical memory". All of this name-changing is having the effect of fragmenting the modest but interesting body of literature that has accumulated about this interesting variant of memory savantism.

After my surprise at seeing Jill Price on the box again, I then failed to be amazed when I saw that some of the most interesting aspects of the science of Jill Price's case of hyperthymestic syndrome, her synaesthesia and synaesthesia's possible relationship with memory savant skills, were not reported by 60 Minutes. I had become accustomed to reading and viewing descriptions of the fascinating mind of Jill Price that completely overlook the obvious and interesting fact that she has time-space synaesthesia, formerly known as "number forms" or "number form synaesthesia". Last year's story about superior autobiographical memory on the US version of 60 Minutes failed to mention the link with synesthesia, and the reporter for Catalyst failed to mention that Price, their featured guest, is a synaesthete back in 2009. It's hard to believe that the academics who wrote the original 2006 medical journal paper that first described Price also failed to note that their case was a synaesthete, even though they described in detail the idiosyncratic layouts of her number forms for years and months in their paper. Jill Price also described these mental spatial forms in her 2008 autobiography. Given that a very old case study of an incredible memory savant "S" who also happened to have many different types of synaesthesia, which was written by the scientist Alexander Luria, is a very widely-read case study among psychology students, I'm amazed that all of these scientists failed to twig that Price might be, and indeed is, of the same type.

Both US and Australian 60 Minutes stories about superior autobiographical memory cite the part of the brain known as the caudate nucleus as enlarged in people who have the condition, but the reporter of the Australian story, Allison Langdon, managed to create a sensationalist exaggeration of the truth as a result of what seems to be a basic lack of mathematical knowledge. In the Australian story it is clamed that this part of the brain " enormous – up to seven times bigger than normal" while in the American CBS News version of the story a direct quote from the American academic who is researching the phenomenon is much closer to the truth, describing the caudate nucleus as "...perhaps up to seven or eight what's called standard deviations larger than normal. To understand what that means, if a man was seven or eight standard deviations taller than the height of the average man, he'd be ten feet tall. So we have some potentially whopping effects...". Yes, this is a whopping effect, but nowhere like as whopping as seven or eight times normal. It appears that we have a reporter working on one of Australia's highest rating current affairs television shows who doesn't know the difference between standard deviations and multiplication; basic high school maths. Are you surprised? I'm not surprised, just really sad. You see what I meant by "studid and popular"? I wasn't joking.

A 2009 USA Today story about Jill Price identified the caudate nucleus and also "...a part of the temporal lobe that stores facts, dates and events..." as enlarged in Jill Price's brain. The US 60 Minutes story also identified "the temporal lobe" as enlarged in people who have superior autobiographical memory. The temporal lobes have been found to be involved in some cases of synaesthesia (Cytowic's famous book described one such case), but I'm not aware of any cases of synesthesia that have been demonstrated to involve the caudate nucleus, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen - synaesthesia is an area of research that is still developing at a fast rate.

While many researchers and reporters have failed to note Jill Price's synaesthesia, which is an interesting aspect of one case of very superior autobiographical memory, some British researchers have given her synaesthesia the attention that it deserves. I can recommend their 2009 Cortex journal paper about savant-like abilities of some visuo-spatial synaesthetes as a good read for the nerdy and interested.

I look forward to reading the upcoming autobiographical book by the US actress Marilu Henner, who claims to also have a very superior autobiographical memory, popular and stupid as it may turn out to be.

References and Reading

CBS News (2010) The Gift of Endless Memory. 60 Minutes (US). December 19, 2010.

Elias, Marilyn (2009) MRIs reveal possible source of woman's super-memory. USA Today. January 28th 2009.

Henner, Marilu (not yet published) An Unforgettable Life. Simon & Schuster, to be published late 2011.

Langdon, Allison (reporter), Rice, Stephen (producer)(2011) Total recall. 60 Minutes (Australia). September 2nd 2011.

Parker, Elizabeth S., Cahill, Larry, & McGaugh, James L. (2006) A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase. Volume 12 Issue 1 February 2006. p. 35 – 49.
["AJ" in this paper is Jill Price. Number form synesthesia described on page 42]

Phillips, Graham (2009) Unforgettable memories. Catalyst. ABC Television. March 19th 2009.

Price, Jill & Davis, Bart (2008) The woman who can't forget: the extraordinary story of living with the most remarkable memory known to science - a memoir. Free Press, May 2008.
[number form synesthesia described on pages 30-31]

Simner, Julia, Mayo, Neil, Spiller, Mary-Jane (2009) A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex. Volume 45, issue 10, November-December 2009, Pages 1246-1260.
["AJ" from the 2006 Neurocase paper, who is Jill Price, is discussed in this paper. "We suggest that time-space forms may be a necessary but not sufficient component of hyperthymestic syndrome, and that this latter may arise from the unification of two independent features that have co-incidentally co-occurred in case AJ." Other papers about this type of synaesthesia can be found in this journal issue.]

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