Total Recall

An Annapolis man remembers the past 32 years like it all happened yesterday.

By Ron Cassie. Photography by Christopher Myers. - December 2013

Total Recall

An Annapolis man remembers the past 32 years like it all happened yesterday.

By Ron Cassie. Photography by Christopher Myers. - December 2013

Sean Conlon, who possesses a rare, autobiographical memory ability. -Photography by Christopher Myers

Sean Conlon, the Hippodrome Theatre’s food and beverage director, grew up in Bayville, Long Island, and was a 15-year-old Mets fan on October 25, 1986. Like baseball fans everywhere, he will never forget the moment Mookie Wilson’s 10th-inning squibber ducked between Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs. In fact, he remembers an extraordinary amount of detail from that day. Conlon, who worked as a restaurant food runner at the time, recalls the drive to work that morning with his father and later watching Game Six with the bartender and four other co-workers—all of whom he still remembers by name. He also remembers the specific type of television that they watched the ballgame on, his uniform—down to the logo on his V-neck sweater—and the shrimp cocktail, veggie dip platter, nachos, and cookies they ate as the innings passed.

Not convinced that’s not so unusual? After all, maybe you remember Eddie Murray’s two homeruns during Game Five of the 1983 World Series. But do you remember the day, date, name of everyone you were with, what you wore, and what you drank and ate? Possibly. We all have a few events in our lives that stick with us.

So here’s the real difference between “normal” human memory and Conlon’s brain bank: He remembers every day like it was Game Six. Yes, that was a notably fond memory, but it makes no difference if it was the World Series or he was picking up his dry cleaning. For example, how about other October 25ths? It’s a pretty random date.

“October 25, 1987 was a gray Sunday and there was a Fleetwood Mac concert at the Nassau Coliseum that day, which I worked,” Conlon responds without a second’s hesitation when queried what his then-16-year-old self was doing that day. (The tour date checks out.) “October 25, 1988 was a Tuesday, and I was coming down with a cold and feeling pretty miserable. Worked that day, too, and listened to a cassette tape of Steely Dan’s Aja driving home in my car, a beige 1981 Plymouth Sapporo.”

Recently, sitting in The Hipp Café after lunch, Conlon correctly rattles off the exact days and dates of every show’s run there over the past decade—and the weather on each opening night. He can recall the cake his parents served, not just at his, but at his younger sister’s birthday parties when they were kids, as well as the names of every child who attended each party.

It’s all there. His whole life. Or at least the past 32 years, since he was 10.

“I can just see it,” he explains. “Like a DVD player, just scrolling back.”

Conlon possesses, according to leading neurobiologists at the University of California, Irvine, an extraordinarily rare ability called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). First documented in 2000, researchers have since identified fewer than 100 people in the U.S. with this little understood talent. These folks, like Conlon, remember not only the front-page events, but also much of what they did every day—and what happened immediately around them—verified by research and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues.

“I’d call it ‘a condition,’ it’s not a superpower,” Conlon says with a laugh. “If it was a super power, I’d be able to change things.”

(For the record, he even recalls thefacts around the O’s aforementioned 1983 World Series win over the Phillies: “Sunday, October 16 at Veterans Stadium, I didn’t watch the game, but it was ending on TV when I got home. A beautiful fall day and I was out riding my bike with my buddy David, who lived a mile and a half away. My mom ordered pizza from Ralph’s for dinner that night. I also bought a Skor candy bar—hard toffee inside chocolate—from a card store earlier that day. I don’t know if they still make them, but thinking about it right now, I’m kinda getting hungry for one.”)

“It’s not like these people are trying to remember all of this,” says James McGaugh, a fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. “That’s nonsense. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, even if someone wanted to, for that. How it works, where the ability comes from, is a mystery.”

It’s also an enigma to those who possess it.

Conlon forgets where he left his car keys, like the rest of us. (He even forgot our photo studio’s address and called our photographer the day of the shoot.) He also admits to sometimes leaving his wallet on his desk at work. That said, he remembers that last time it happened. “May 24,” he says. “A Friday. Drove home to Annapolis and had to drive back to Baltimore.”
And the whole Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, while incredible, is not always pleasant to deal with, as one can imagine. Conlon vividly remembers not just the happy details of favorite baseball games, but each bad day and painful experience, too. “I’d say it’s about 80/20 positive,” he says, admitting to occasionally using sleep medication to stem the flood of memories at night.

Like all memory, HSAM memory, it turns out, is highly specialized. Conlon and others who possesses this skill don’t have extraordinary reading comprehension or rote memorization ability. As a group, they don’t recall musical notes or pick up foreign languages better than the rest of us. They are good students, but with IQs in the normal range. Their short-term memory—thus the misplaced car keys—is not exceptional. Jason Reed, Conlon’s boss at the Hippodrome, notes, however, there are benefits in the workplace of having his unusual memory around. “We do a lot of catering, repeat events, and it’s not like we can’t look up the date when something took place or what we served and how much liquor we ordered, but it’s just easier to ask Sean,” Reed says. “People think it’s a trick at first. We’ve had staff try to stump him and I’d say 99.9 percent of the time, he’s right when you ask him about something. If he says he’s sure—then it’s 100 percent.”

McGaugh says Conlon and HSAM individuals simply do not fit on a standard memory chart. “They are on their own graph.

“Some of the people we’ve tested compare the ability to flipping through pages of a scrapbook,” McGaugh continues. Others say it’s like zooming into an overview of a day via Google Earth. “What we believe is not that they are more observant or encode things differently, but rather their memories don’t fade after three or four days like ours do.

“What they really are,” McGaugh says, “are bad at ‘forgetting.’”

All of which flies in the face of conventional theory. The assumption among neurologists has been that “forgetting” is a necessary evolutionary development that allows us to generalize, think abstractly, and recall the crucial stuff—such as the drive from work—without clogging our neural pathways. “It’s a puzzle,” McGaugh says. “These are not people with cluttered minds.”

Through MRI tests, McGaugh has found HSAM’s do have several enlarged parts of their brains, but it’s unclear if this is innate—or due to “exercising” those memory muscles. These are also parts of the brain that may be linked to obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as excessive organizing, collecting, and attention to cleanliness—although Conlon doesn’t have those manifestations. “I think people in my life probably wish I had a little more of those qualities,” he jokes.

Aurora LePort, a California-Irvine doctoral candidate, notes that one obvious benefit in the discovery of HSAM—first brought to public attention by 60 Minutes several years ago—is research, which has focused on either normal or faulty memory, such as with dementia. “This is a chance to observe how memory works neurologically from another perspective,” she says. “The big hope is, yes, we’ll be able to help people someday.”

Personally, in the more immediate future, Conlon says he’s still learning to manage his ability, something that he remained quiet about for a long time. “There was a period, starting in middle school, when I kept this to myself,” he says. “Kids in school thought it was cool for a little while, but also that it was weird. It was after I returned home after college in South Carolina that I began having some fun with it. I won a $100 from a guy who owns a bar in Bayville who swore a certain day—the day he got married—was a Sunday, and I told him, ‘No, that day was a Saturday.’ He was arrogant and wanted to bet. Of course, this was before the Internet, and I had to go down to the library and dig out a newspaper from that day.”

Since the published studies at California, Irvine, the 60 Minutes segments—which featured actress Marilu Henner, who also possess the unique memory—and the recent CBS-TV show Unforgettable, which follows a police detective with HSAM, Conlon says he’s become more comfortable with his gift. He understands he’s unique, but not alone. “It’s been validation,” he says.

In October, for example, Conlon and Frank Healy, an HSAM individual from New Jersey who’s become a friend, appeared together on the Michael Smerconish radio show. Healy is a licensed counselor and author of Heal Your Memories, Change Your Life, which deals directly with issues Conlon has experienced, such as the break-up of romantic relationships. Time, of course, doesn’t heal the wounds for Conlon in the same way it does for most people, and he now consciously beckons good memories when his mind fixates on a bad day or singularly negative recollection. (One HSAM woman told LePort that she copes with negative memories by intentionally creating one positive experience each day, knowing she’ll recall each day for the rest of her life.) “It’s something I’m working on with Frank,” he says. “It’s getting better.”

The best part of his gift, says Conlon, who is single, is being able to play biographer for those close to him. He’s not only a walking diary of his own life, but of his family members’ and friends’ lives, too.

“All those people you forget, the places you went, the funny things that happen on a road trip, he remembers,” says lifelong friend Mike Campese. “Not too long ago, I came across a journal that I had to keep for a high-school English class, the spring semester of my senior year. There are entries every three or five days and he can literally tell me what happened in between.”

Conlon’s younger sister, Lori Coogan, also lives in Annapolis. She especially appreciates her brother’s childhood recollections now as a parent. “My oldest is 13 and I wonder what he’s thinking sometimes, in terms of girls and other things, and I can ask Sean a question about when I dated my first boyfriend, how many months that lasted. It helps me not only to remember own childhood, but also to relate to my kids at different ages.”

It’s fun, Conlon says, to take his gift out and play with it, so to speak—flashback through an entire month 25 years ago, post something on Facebook, entertain people at a bar. “What I like most, though, is filling in the details of the lives of people close to me,” he says. “I feel very connected, emotionally, to my own past because I have such vivid memories. I can see how much they appreciate being able to reconnect to parts of their own lives that they’ve forgotten.”

Ron Cassie is a senior editor at Baltimore.

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