Most people can only remember the major events in their lives: Weddings, funerals, and all the firsts. Actress Marilu Henner, on the other hand, who is best known for her role as Elaine Nardo on the old TV sitcom Taxi, can recall almost any memory from her entire lifespan, including -- probably -- what she ate for lunch three years ago, who she was with, and what the weather was like. On Tuesday, Henner released a new book called Total Memory Makeover, in which she describes her life with her gift of near-perfect memory, also known as hyperthymesia, and also instructs others how to better unlock their own memories.
When somebody gives me a date or a year or something, I see all these little movie montages, basically on a time continuum, and I'm scrolling through them and flashing through them, Henner said. I can always remember where I first read a script or what I studied or what I liked about, things like that. But definitely being an actress, I learned how to embrace my memories and celebrate them and explore them without hesitation whatsoever.
Henner, who has starred in countless TV shows like ER and films like Man On The Moon, can remember almost anything from her life: From holidays, to random and seemingly insignificant events, all of the memories inside Henner's head appear incredibly vivid, like little videos moving simultaneously, she said. That's because Henner is one of only 12 people in the entire world diagnosed with hyperthymesia, also known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Her condition is similar to the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper pops a clear pill and suddenly, all his memories and everything he's ever come across becomes immediately accessible for recall.
Henner said her very earliest memory is her own baptism:
I just remember the water, and I remember the white, she said. Whenever I go back into memory, I'm always in my body looking out.
But she can also remember more important events right off the top of her head, like the day she got the part as Elaine Nardo on Taxi.
It was June 4 of 1978, Henner said. It was a Sunday and I found out at the 'Grease' premiere party. 'Taxi' is so vivid to my mind. The very first rehearsal was July the 5th of 1978. That was a Wednesday and our first show was shot the 14th, a Friday.
Henner said that her super sharp memory has been beneficial for her acting career:
People always go 'Oh you can remember your lines,' [but] that's more photographic memory. But definitely, being an actress, I learned how to embrace my memories and celebrate them and explore them without hesitation whatsoever, Henner said. We would do sense memory exercises in acting class, and I would instantly cry or laugh, and people would go, 'How did you get there so fast?'
For her new book Total Memory Makeover, Henner's tagline is Uncover your past, take charge of your future. She describes her life with hyperthymesia, and attempts to teach others how to access our own private mental calendars, which Henner calls tracks.
If your life is just this big jigsaw puzzle, what are those border pieces to help you fill in the picture? Henner asked. If you start with your track, other memories will come in as a result.
Henner tells readers that one of the first steps to improving one's memory is knowing how they're triggered. She adds that people tend to remember things in different ways: Some remember things visually, while others remember flavors, smells and sounds more vividly.
Everything you've ever done in your life is on your emotional hard drive anyway, and it's making you behave in certain ways whether or not you're conscious of it, Henner said. So you might as well access it, understand it, explore it, and see what you can bring forward to the next few months, or the legacy you're leaving your kids.
To Henner, memory is what makes life meaningful. She feels blessed because of her gift of incredible memory, but she hopes to help others remember as much as they can.
It's that defense against meaninglessness, Henner explains. I'm not just occupying time. There's some significance to what I'm doing and how I'm living my life.
After all, life is short, she says.
It's not just a parlor trick, Henner said. This is important stuff.