Brain bites

Why is it we can hear a song we haven’t even thought about for 30 years and instantly recall every single word, but can’t remember where we set our keys five minutes ago?

Why is it we can hear a song we haven’t even thought about for 30 years and instantly recall every single word, but can’t remember where we set our keys five minutes ago?

Those of you who have song banks going back three decades will probably remember a sitcom called Taxi that aired from 1978-1982. But can you remember what you were doing at 2 p.m. on Aug. 4th, 1979? How about Feb. 21, 1986?

Unless something major happened to you on these dates or you keep a detailed journal, chances are you don’t have a clue.

I recently learned that Marilu Henner, one of Taxi’s many stars, has the ability to remember every single day of her life since she was 11 years old. The scientific name for this is ‘hyperthymesia’ or as it’s more commonly known ‘superior autobiographical memory’. Only half a dozen people in the entire world are thought to have it and Marilu is one of them.

“It’s like putting in a DVD and it cues up to a certain place,” Henner explained to CBS’ 60 Minutes. “I’m there again. So I’m looking out from my eyes and seeing things visually as I would have that day.”

She can recall what the weather was like, what she was wearing, what she ate and all the other details that make up an ordinary day.

It’s easy to be sceptical. I could tell you that on June 12, 1972 I had cornflakes for breakfast, wore a teal green sweatshirt with red pants and the sun was shining. You might raise an eyebrow at my childhood fashion sense, but how could you say different? However, small historical happenings, headings from newspapers and other inarguable clues are used to back up the claims, so it would seem they are legit.

I don’t know if remembering every day of your life would be a gift or a curse. There is usually a softening to memories as a body ages. We remember snuggling with our children and reading bedtime stories and forget all about the raging stomach flues and teenage turmoil. We remember laughter and forget the tears. Not a bad trade.

Still the thought of such a vast memory bank intrigues me, especially at this time of year. Here in Canada, frost bite is a common occurrence in January. But usually it’s our cheeks or nose or toes that succumb. For me, it always feels like I get annual frostbite of the brain. January brain bite has me putting milk in the cupboard, cans in the fridge and opening the dryer to get some eggs. It has me set down my keys and then forget where I put them.

We tend to think humans and their brain gifts such as Marilu Henner’s makes us the brightest bulbs in the lamp, but maybe we should consider the bird. The term bird-brain is not very flattering, but perhaps it should be. Just think how migratory birds can navigate. It’s impressive enough they can wing their way across thousands of miles of sky and end up in another country, but to end up precisely at your garage year after year just boggles my frost bitten brain.

We have dedicated pairs of red wing blackbirds, robins, barn swallows and Baltimore orioles that wing their way back to our small farm year after year. As we grind our way through the final months of winter I like to think about what our birds are doing down south. I picture them sitting on a leafy branch under a warm, sunny sky pondering their upcoming journey.

“Well Martha, I guess it’s time we started to lock up the winter perch and prepare for our journey north.”

“Oh George! You took the words right out of my beak. I’ve been thinking about building our new nest at the McKinnon farm all morning. This year I want to use some wool from those sheep and maybe some hair from that black horse.”

“Nothing’s too good for you my sweet.”

Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but who knows? Right now bird brains may very well be turning north just as mine is going south. Now if only I had a bird’s eye view of the inside of our house maybe I could find those stupid keys.