Why 18-year-old Canadian Emily Nash is sharing her unique brain with science

An 18-year-old from near Ottawa has become what appears to be the first Canadian, and among the youngest people in the world, to have a rare but extraordinary super memory.

Emily Nash learned she has highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) after being tested by researchers in the U.S.

She now jokingly calls it her “superpower,” relieved to learn that the trait she tried to hide was actually a verifiable phenomenon.

“I just felt so much relief knowing that I’m not alone, that it’s not something I made up. It’s something that actually exists,” she told CTV W5 in an exclusive interview.

Emily is a straight-A student. In her last year of high school, she is decidedly composed and modest about her skill. But she now joins a small and unique tribe of about 100 people confirmed with HSAM around the world.

For most of us, memories fade with time.

Ask anyone to tell you what happened on Oct. 21, 2021 and you will usually be met with a lengthy pause as they struggle to recall events of that day.

But ask Emily and the response comes within seconds, with precision. “October 21, 2021? Oh, the Alec Baldwin ‘Rust’ shooting. That was a Thursday,” she quickly responded.

March 4, 2019? “Luke Perry died,” she stated, noting she never watched the actor’s show, but rather just heard about his passing. “ My mom took me home for lunch, and I remember in the car we had the radio on and they said Luke Perry passed away.” That is all it took for her to remember this detail four-and-a-half years later.

Emily Nash said her memories are filed in a mental calendar, in video form (CTV W5)

Emily said her memories are filed in a mental calendar, in video form. “Each day kind of represents a little movie, where I can rewind and fast forward and replay various points throughout my day,” she said.

Her parents, Jason Nash and Julie Farnworth, said they spotted Emily’s uncanny recall as a young child.

Her father, Jason, said he would show Emily a series of coloured bowling pins for about 10 seconds and then spin her around, asking her to name the order they were in.

“She would knock them off right away in terms of identifying every pin, in terms of, you know, red, yellow, green, blue,” he said.

Her mother, Julie, discovered Emily — at age five — could watch a Peanuts cartoon and then recall and repeat the dialogue from any point in the episode.

“We knew that at that point in time there was something going on with her memory, but we couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was like. So we thought we should just let it develop a little more naturally on its own to try and figure out what it is,” Julie said.

They finally figured it out, coincidentally, on Remembrance Day 2021.

As Julie was designing a tombstone for her parents, she was asked by the headstone designer for specific dates of their births and marriage. Julie joked that she would contact “Wikipedia” — the family pet name for Emily — who rapidly texted back all the correct dates.

That’s when the headstone designer suggested Emily might have the same sort of unusual memory first documented in a “60 Minutes” program from 2010, featuring American actress Marilu Henner. The Broadway star and main character of the 1970s sitcom “Taxi” revealed she has a super autobiographical memory for dates and events.

“It was a jaw-dropping moment when I realized the similarities,” said Julie, after watching the documentary program. That’s when the pointed questions to their daughter began.

“We said, ‘well, can you name the day of the week? Can you go back, you know, a year and tell us exactly what you did on that date? You know, what were you wearing? What did you eat?’ She was able to explain all those things,” said Jason. For Emily, it was validation that she wasn’t, as she puts, it “weird.”

“Knowing that other people have it in the world, I just felt so much relief knowing that I’m not alone,” she said.

Emily Nash was formally tested by scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago, and by Carmen Westerberg, a psychology and sleep researcher at Texas State University (CTV W5).

Emily was then formally tested by scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago, and by Carmen Westerberg, a psychology and sleep researcher at Texas State University. The test usually involves giving someone random dates, asking them to specify the day of the week, personal experiences, along with verifiable events around that time.

But because Emily is among the youngest the team had assessed, they had to adjust the screening questions to adapt to the life experiences of a teen.

“That was one thing that stuck out,” said Westerberg. Any time we asked her a pop culture question, she was all over it, but she didn’t have as much knowledge about world events.”

CTV W5 was able to film a sample test, where Emily was asked about a variety of dates, starting with Nov. 26, 2021.

“That was a Friday,” said Emily.

“Do you recall a verifiable event from around that time?” asked Westerberg.

“Let’s see,” said Emily, who then amazingly rattled off a comprehensive list.

“A Netflix film called ‘Tick, Tick Boom’ was released on Nov. 10th, 2021.

“’The House of Gucci,’ released Nov. 24th, 2021.

“’West Side Story’ — that came in theaters Dec. 3rd, I’m pretty sure, 2021,” she said.

She was 100 percent correct.

When Emily was asked if she wanted researchers to help understand HSAM to see if it might unlock clues to help those with memory loss, she didn’t hesitate. She lives with the memory of watching two of her grandparents suffer because of dementia. “ I want to help in the best way possible with my memory,” said Emily.

Super memory as a way of tackling memory loss

Scientists only began studying HSAM in 2006. They have confirmed it’s not related to IQ and that those with superior memory don’t use tricks to remember. It is found more often in people with obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD), though in Emily’s case her mother confirms her only obsession is her school work.

The most intriguing discovery of people with HSAM, say scientists, is that their memories don’t decay like the vast majority of people. “They’re not really taking in more information. It’s just that they are not forgetting it like most people do.” said Westerberg.

In a world where there are an estimated 10 million people a year developing memory loss linked to dementia and Alzheimers, HSAM is a “juicy phenomenon,” according to Giuliana Mazzoni, a researcher at the University of Rome.

Mazzoni is studying the phenomenon in a group of Italians with HSAM because of the intriguing lessons they may hold. Westerberg agrees, saying, “If we can figure out what’s going right with memory, maybe we can help with what’s going wrong.”

Mazzoni is among a group of scientists who are trying to identify the regions of the brain that appear more active in those with highly superior autobiographical memory. Her early work suggested more grey matter in parts of the brain along with a higher emphasis on visual recording of daily events.

There are also tests starting to apply what’s being learned. A group of patients with early Alzheimer’s disease are receiving transcranial magnetic stimulation, targeting the circuit identified in HSAM as part of a trial at the University of Perugia and University of Trento. The question: will the signals improve patients memory?

The experiment is led by Prof. Costanza Papagno, professor of neurology at the University of Trento (Photo courtesy of Costanza Papagno)

Emily’s sleep

The study that Emily has signed up for has her putting on her pajamas.

In a sleep laboratory in the basement of a building on the campus of Texas State University, in Austin, a technician glues sensors to her head and chest for an overnight sleep study. It’s all in the name of dementia research.

Sleep is where scientists believe memories are cemented into the brain.

Westerberg and colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago have been probing how sleep might help those with superior autobiographical memory. The team is about halfway through a study comparing 12 adults with HSAM against 24 normal controls. Emily is patient number nine.

Both groups, says Westerberg, sleep about the same total time. But those with HSAM differ in one important area — sleep spindles.

On an electroencephalogram (EEG), the test used to track brain waves during sleep, spindles look like random, tiny, jagged lines along the otherwise smooth brain signals of early sleep. But this pattern is how some scientists think our brains synchronize memories and deposit them for future use.

As Westerberg compares the results, she says she is finding people with HSAM have more sleep spindles, almost double, than people with normal memory, along with an unusual pattern with the early slow ways of sleep. She calls it “exciting.”

“This is suggesting that maybe they are consolidating their memories of what happened to them during the day more strongly or more efficiently than other people, which could help explain why they’re not forgetting as much,” Westerberg said.

Her study will be completed later in 2024, but it does raise some tantalizing possibilities.

People with cognitive decline and dementia have often troubled sleep and, interestingly, disrupted or abnormal sleep spindles and slow wave phase sleep patterns. So could helping restore normal sleep and those spindles improve their memories? Westerberg points to studies that show some sleep medications have been shown to increase spindles, and slow wave sleep.

“By getting better sleep and, in particular, you know, these slow oscillations linked with the sleep spindles…maybe that could improve memory,” she said.

The road forward for a girl who can’t forget

As soon as Emily returned from testing in Austin, she began to receive acceptance from every university program to which she applied. Her plan is a career in scientific research.

“I’m thinking either like biomedical science, biotechnology,” she said.

Emily has another shorter term goal. That is to meet others with this “gift.” While HSAM has its benefits, there is a serious drawback. Those with superior memory remember the good, but they will also never forget the bad. They feel the pain as if it were today. Some with HSAM struggle with anxiety and depression as a result.

While Emily hasn’t yet suffered much rejection or loss, she’s felt the sting of the past hurts. “It’s like I just re-lived them 5 minutes ago. So it can be difficult for me to push through,” said Emily.

That’s why Julie, a psychiatric nurse, is putting great effort into coaching her daughter on how to manage that burden.

“I’ve tried to teach her that everybody has heartbreak. That is part of life,” said Julie. “There will be breakups, and she has to expect that, and it’s part of our growth.”

But it worries Julie. “I won’t lie. Sometimes it does keep me up at night thinking,….how will it be for her? I don’t think any of us can quite conceptualize what it will be like for her” she said.

Markie Pasternak said she can understand Emily’s situation, perfectly.

The 29-year-old from Minneapolis discovered she had HSAM while sitting in a university class, discussing the power of memory and posting blogs on her website, Living with Total Recall.

Pasternak has met three others with HSAM. Emily is her fourth.

“I think it’s courageous. I think it’s courageous to take that step, to admit that you have this,” said Pasternak of Emily’s decision to go public. They chatted for about half-an-hour by Zoom as Emily, clearly happy to meet someone from her unusual tribe, asked a raft of questions.

“How does your memory work? Like, mine’s like a calendar,” she said.

Markie described hers as more of a board game. “Each day is different, like square and like, they’re different colors, and it kind of zig zags around. It’s almost like I can go forward and backwards,” she said.

“Do you let people know that you have HSAM or do you wait until it’s brought up?” asked Emily.

“With friendships and acquaintances and stuff or work, even, I just wait until it comes up, and it usually does,” responded Markie, warning that there is a vulnerability to allowing people to ask her to pull up memories. Some may bring happiness, others, sharp pain.

“It’s like my most precious gem, my like, most … sacred thing to me,” said Markie, describing her memories. “And I’m going to open up to you and you can ask me any day in my life and I’m going to tell you what I did that day.”

Another question: “Does your brain ever stop thinking? Or is your brain just flying with memories like 24-7?” asked Emily.

“My default was always just reminiscing, nostalgia,” said Markie, who added she copes by journaling. “I’ve learned to compartmentalize (and) have worked on my own mental health, too, and my own personal boundaries with that,” she said.

The most important advice she offered Emily is that if you can’t forget, you need to cultivate forgiveness.

“Everyone gets hurt by other people at some point because we’re all human. And most people, again, they have their forgetfulness to kind of ease that and move on,” said Markie. “We don’t have that. And so we have to rely so hard on the virtue of forgiveness and recognizing that people are human and they make mistakes.”

Think you have HSAM? Test it out

While there are only about 100-200 verified cases of HSAM in the world, scientists suspect there are many more.

Prof. Valerio Santangelo, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Perugia in Italy, has calculated that theoretically 0.01 per cent of the population could have a highly superior autobiographical memory. That could mean 700,000 people around the world who fit the criteria but have not been formally tested.

Part of this may be because there have been few scientists studying this form of memory, and has to be culturally and age appropriate. In Emily’s case, researchers at Northwestern University and The University of Texas, Austin, had to make questions appropriate for an 18-year-old who prefers movies and music to world affairs.

While there is no online screening tool, Dr. James McGaugh, a now retired professor emeritus at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, who helped discover HSAM, told CTV’s W5 that people can start with their own screening test.

They begin by selecting well-known events and asking the person for the date and the day of the week when the event occurred.

They can also randomly select a day or date, and ask for verifiable events around that date.

He added that “it is critically important to emphasize that HSAM is a strong ability to recall autobiographical experiences, along with the day and dates.” In creating questions, the advice is to use events that are noteworthy and that occurred after the test subject was about 15 years old.

For example:

Day and Date of Super Bowl in 2015?

Answer: Feb. 1.

Day and Date of Canadian Thanksgiving in 2017?

Answer: Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

Or you can ask, what event occurred Feb 1, 2015?

Answer: The Superbowl.

Researchers use something called the “10 Date Quiz,” using randomly selected dates, picked by an online calculator like this one.

Test subjects get a point for identifying the event, the day of the week, the month and the year.

Individuals were asked to provide three different categories of information for each of the 10 dates generated:

(1) the day of the week;

(2) a description of a verifiable event that could be confirmed via an online search

(3) a description of a personal autobiographical event the individual participated in.

That’s a maximum of three possible points per date and 30 total. The percentage scored for each category (date/day/event) as well as the total score, the average of all three categories, was calculated.

A total score of 65 per cent indicates that a person is likely to have HSAM and would merit further testing by researchers at a center studying this autobiographical memory.

Watch W5’s documentary ‘Total Recall’ in our video player at the top of this article

With files from producers Maya Hamovitch and Kevin O’Keefe

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