These days, more people recognize Marilu Henner for her awe-inspiring memory than for her role as Elaine Nardo on the cult TV classic Taxi. Her 60 Minutes appearance several years ago, in which she demonstrated her Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, has attracted the attention of scientists and casual observers alike.
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When she's not undergoing testing with researchers at UC-Irvine or filming on the set of a new movie, Henner’s at work on her Total Health Makeover lifestyle program. The latest addition to the stable, her ninth book Total Memory Makeover, is a fun and invaluable guide which proves that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
A blend of anecdote, practical exercises and advice, Henner offers readers a unique glimpse into her singular brain and shares what's helped her organize and flex that exceptional memory of hers. She’s sure to unlock at least one long-forgotten memory from the cobwebbed recesses of readers’ minds.
You’re one of about a dozen people who’ve been classified with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). When did you first notice that your memory was different?
I’ve known since I was 6 years old that I had the best memory of anyone around me. I was the family historian, always coming up with the answers. I used to put myself to sleep meditating: what did I do a week ago, a month ago, a year ago? It was like a reading a little snippet of a past experience.
When I was 18 years old, on May 24, 1970, I was talking with my good friend Irene. She said, “When are you going to realize no one else has this crazy memory of yours?” I knew my family didn't, even though everyone in my family has a great memory. But nobody else around me could do what I could do.
[When I met the others with HSAM], I definitely felt a great kinship. Having this kind of memory is almost like speaking another language. We were able to sit and say, “You’ve had this kind of experience” or “People have done this with you.”
You suggest developing your memory can lead to improved physical and mental health. In what ways?
First of all, people tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. It becomes their norm over time. If people are happy, that's great. But a lot of the time, people find themselves in a rut. They cannot get a grip on what it is in their own behavior that might be re-creating the same scenarios over and over again. People that I work with on memory work, they’re often picking the same guy over and over again. They can never see how they're ignoring the red flags at the beginning, or how they’re bringing a certain personality or characteristic to the table.
If you’re able to bring your past forward into your new experiences, you’re not making those types of mistakes…If you’re able to look back 10 years ago and recognize that you had a similar incident, you won’t behave like that anymore. If you’re able to look at your past, at your failures and successes, you’ll be able to avoid this.
This is conscious living. We all walk around so unconsciously all the time, without filling ourselves with the good things in our lives. Memory enables us to move forward in a more conscientious, informed and enlightened mindset.
You’ve been working with researchers at UC-Irvine for years now. Have they discovered what makes a memory like yours tick?
Yes, they’ve been taking skin samples, hair samples, blood samples, saliva. They’ve scanned my brain. They’re always testing me. They’re publishing a paper, which is due out soon, so I can’t give too much away. There’s a lot of information they still don’t know. They do know there are sizable differences in certain areas of my brain and that of someone with a normal memory. I’ve seen the scans, and they made me gasp.
Because I couldn’t believe the difference in size in certain sections of my brain—literally, there was a section of my brain that was 10 times larger than a normal person’s. There’s some debate about whether this is nature or nurture, but…for me, it’s been a combination of nature and nurture.
That’s what I wanted to share with people in this book. There are ways of sparking, firing off different sections of people’s brains that haven’t been fired off before. It’s self-reflection, but it’s also a blast. It’s fun to look back on your life like a movie you’ve seen or a book that you’ve read and loved.
You talk about starting to exercise your children’s memory at an early age.
Yes, my son Joey has an element of this. It’s not as developed as mine, but his ability to retain information—“Mom, that was three weeks ago!”—I know he has a natural facility for it. My other son, Nick, too. They’re both exceptional students, with amazing memories, and they really key into the life lesson aspect of this as well. They know they can’t win an argument with me because I’ll sit there and spit back their exact dialogue to them. “It was Tuesday, you were wearing a striped shirt...”
Has this ever been a curse?
Never. Some people think that because I have HSAM it’s been a terrible burden, and that it must be so hard not to remember the painful parts. But for me, every memory holds so much weight. I have a tremendous advantage having been trained as an actor—I’m always trying to dredge up a full range of emotions.
Memory is never something to feel either ashamed of or frightened by. This is only something that has been helpful to me as an actress. Same with holding grudges. If I held a grudge every time somebody said something about me? Who wants to walk around with that? In some way having a great memory unburdens you because you see the whole picture.
For more information about Marilu’s 'Total Health Makeover' on her website at marilu.com.