Spring 2011

Biolans Up Close

Louise Owen (‘91) and her mind-boggling memory

As a freelance violinist in New York City, Biola alumna Louise Owen makes frequent appearances at Carnegie Hall. But she is nationally recognized for a different, more unique ability: Owen was featured prominently on 60 Minutes last December for her highly superior autobiographical memory that allows her to remember every day of her life since age 11. Owen, who attended Biola for two years (starting at the age of 16) before leaving to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, has been working with neuroscientists at UC Irvine for over a year to research her rare memory. She recently shared some of her story with Biola Magazine.

When were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in 1973. We lived in San Diego for nine years until my parents got the job at Biola, so that’s why we moved to La Mirada. I basically grew up in the Biola music department, so I was always hanging around the music building. I played in the orchestra, and my dad’s the conductor of the orchestra. I used to go and sit in on his classes, and my brother and I went to all the concerts that my parents took us to. So we were friends with everybody in the department there.

What years were you a student at Biola?
I was a student when I was 16 and 17, so that was 1989 through 1991. And then I transferred to the New England Conservatory in Boston.

You were 16 and 17 as a college student?
Yeah. I finished high school early. My parents were not about to send me away as a 16-year-old, so I had two years of Biola and then I left.

And overall, your time at Biola, what was that like for you? What kind of experience?
I was always the little kid hanging out with the college students. It was great. I had a great time and made some really good friends. For me, it was really fun growing up in being very involved in the music department and having so many friends who were my parents’ students there.

How did you end up becoming a violinist and moving to New York, and how has your memory played a role in learning music?
I started playing violin when I was 3. I grew up in a musical family. It just sort of happened very naturally. I went to school in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music, which is one of the great music schools in the country. I moved to New York on a fluke after I finished school in Boston, and I never left. I always knew that I wanted to live in New York at some point, and I had no idea I was going to love it as much as I actually do. I always knew I would end up here at some point, but I’ve been here for almost 15 years now.

As for how the memory plays into the music, this is a question I have been asked a lot. I’m never quite sure how to answer it because I had a really great musical memory long before I knew I had this autobiographical memory as well — or before the autobiographical ability kicked in on a consistent basis here. But I do know that I’ve had a really unfair advantage in being able to memorize music easily. That’s something that so many people, even really accomplished musicians, have to work much harder at, and for me, it’s always been very automatic or very easy.

How long have you been a professional violinist since you graduated?
16 years.

And you still visit Biola from time to time right? I know you’ve played some concerts here.
I have, yeah. I don’t have anything lined up this year, but for the previous couple of years in the spring I’ve come back to play.

Now are you working on anything big right now?
I’m a freelancer, so I’m kind of all over the city. I play in lots of the different orchestras here in town. In the past, I’ve done Broadway work. I do recording stuff. I’ve done tours. I’ve toured with Barbara Streisand. Wherever I get called, that’s what I do.

Where are some of the favorite places that you’ve played?
I toured all over the U.S. and all over Europe with Barbra Streisand, and that was amazing. We went to all the major cities here. The European tour was especially wonderful. I had a really great experience touring with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. We were all over Spain and Italy. I would say that was a major highlight of playing.

What is the scientific name for the type of memory you have?
What they’re calling it is highly superior autobiographical memory. There was a Greek name, hyperthymesia, that they came up with, but the highly superior autobiographical memory just fits. I think it suggests what it is right off the bat.

Does your family have a history of having really good memories, or were you just kind of blessed with this gift that came out of nowhere?
My dad has an excellent memory, and both of his grandfathers had incredible memories. One of my great grandfathers was a checkers champion. He would do these tournaments. And he would come home after having played many games with different people throughout the tournament, and he would be able to replay every single game. He had this incredible sequential memory. And then my other great grandfather — also for storytelling and for details. I think he could often pinpoint like month and year of things that happened even if it was 50 years before. I don’t think anybody’s had quite the same specific memory that I do, but my dad and his two sisters also have really great memories for things that happen and things that they read.

What’s the farthest back in your past that you can remember?
I can remember things that happened to me before I was 1 — things that I’ve talked with my parents about, and they’ve said, “How do you possibly remember that?” and I say, “Well, I was there.” My specific day-by-day memory begins when I was 11, but I have many isolated dates even before that time. I remember all of my birthdays, Christmas each year, my parents’ birthdays, my brothers’ birthdays. I still actually remember the dates of birthday parties that I went to in kindergarten. That’s some of the earliest date-associated memories. I have tons of memories from my whole childhood that don’t necessarily have dates attached to them, but there are a handful of specific days.

Do you know some of the things that you remember before you were 1?
I have images of being in the apartment that we lived in. I remember crawling under the piano all the time where my mom would teach lessons. I have memories of the apartment complex where we lived in San Diego and the friends who were in the neighborhood there and who I used to go to the playground with, things like that. I can remember pulling all of the clothes off my changing table. That’s a strong one.

What is it that you remember most? It is events and dates, or feelings, or is it visuals or conversations?
It’s actually all of that. If you say a date to me, I am instantly transported back to that day as though it happened five minutes ago. So I am remembering the emotions of the day. I remember the events, the conversations I had with people. I remember what the weather was like. Sometimes I know what I ate that day or what I was wearing. I usually describe it to people — it’s like time travel. It’s not a photographic memory where I don’t just look at a page of something and read it once and then I can recite it back verbatim. It doesn’t work like that, but it’s more emotionally photographic in that I can replay the entire day in my mind in an instant like that. And for a long time I didn’t know it was unusual. I thought that everybody remembered what happened on every day.

When did you discover that you had this gift? You just said for a long time you thought it was completely normal.
On March 22, 1986, we were in San Diego visiting my grandmother. It was Easter week, and we’d gone down to stay for a couple of days. And so my grandmother gave me this calendar. It was a Sierra Wilderness Club calendar. It was this beautiful desk calendar that had these gorgeous photographs, and it was 52-week calendar. I went through, and I was so excited about it I started writing down everybody’s birthdays, you know, friends and family members. And then I just started filling in what had happened every day since January 1, and it was March 22 when I was doing this. My grandmother comes by and she says, “Um, what are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, well, I’m just writing down what happened this year.” And she said, “What do you mean? How do you know what happened?” And I said, “Well, that’s what happened.”

That was the first that I was made aware that, that was slightly unusual. There was a conversation about it, and I said, “Well, do you not believe me?” And she said, “No, I believe you.” And I said, “OK, do you have the program from mom and dad’s faculty recital that was a month before? It was on February 21. It was a Friday.” She said, “Yes, I have the program.” I said, “OK, here’s the program.” And I listed the order of the music that was on the program. I said, I remember you came the day before, we did this, we did that, we made brownies together for the reception. The day after the recital we did X, Y and Z. She went and got the program, and yes, that was the date and that was the order of the music on the program. She’d been an elementary school teacher, and she was very good with kids. She was very calm and didn’t make a big deal about it with me. She said, “Well, that’s really great that you remember that. I’m so glad to know that.” And later on I hear her saying to my dad, “Um, I need to talk to you.”

I always had a really great musical memory, and so I think my family may have just assumed that this date memory, autobiographical memory, was maybe just an extension of my musical memory that was so highly developed.

How did you feel about it when you found out that you could remember everything and that it wasn’t something everyone had? Did it scare you? Were you excited? Did you feel special?
At the time I just thought, “OK, well, this is just something I can do.” I was always really great in school. It seemed like it was an extension of that things always came very quickly to me. It felt like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Once I was made aware of the fact that not everybody else could do this, I was thinking, “Well, how far back can I go?” I felt like I was just putting all of these pieces of the puzzle together, which was like wow, I finished the puzzle for the year 1985, and oh wow, I managed to complete a large section of 1984.

How did those feelings about it change over the years? How do you feel about your gift now?
My relationship to the gift, to this ability, has changed over the years. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve really downplayed it. I think especially as a teenager where, just being a teenager no matter who you are is challenging, and I didn’t want to do things that would make me seem even more different from the other kids in school. I often downplayed it. Then I went through periods later on where I felt like I needed people needed to know this about me right away, and so I would tell them. It’s sort of been a process. I would say probably since my early or mid-20s or so I’ve just sort of been calm about it where it’s like, people usually find out about it. I don’t bring it up right away when I meet people, but I don’t try to hide it either. I’m grateful for it. One of the questions that people have asked so much over the past year and half or so is, it a blessing or a curse? But for me, it’s absolutely a blessing. There are times when it is really challenging to not be able to let go of certain things, but at the same time, I keep thinking, well, there are so many amazing things that have happened throughout my life, and I’m really grateful that they’re there and that I haven’t forgotten them. It’s a good thing.

What are some of the greatest struggles that you’ve had with being able to remember everything and some of the greatest blessings that have come out of that as well?
There are times when I feel like everybody has amnesia around me. There are so many things that are so present to me, and yet the people around me who might have been directly connected to these various memories, they’re completely unaware of it. I think that’s been one of the trickiest things to know how to navigate throughout my life. When do you bring things up? A lot of times it’s not appropriate, or it’s just completely out of context.

A lot of times I feel like I speak a language nobody else speaks. I can speak the language that everybody around me speaks, but yet I’m completely fluent in this other language that until only very, very recently, I have now found some other people who also speak that language too.

The great thing about having this is, well one of the great things, is that I feel like it really inspires me to want to live in such a way that life is worth remembering. I’ve always loved storytelling and writing stories and reading stories and just drawing people in. I feel like this is one way where I’ve had a chance to really do that in a big way. Also, I mean, on a spiritual level too. I feel like God has shown me so much grace through this, and yet, it’s a total perspective blower here where I feel like, OK, I have a great memory. I remember a lot of things that most people don’t, and yet compared to God and the things that he remembers, I don’t remember a thing. It puts everything all into perspective, and yet I feel like for whatever reason, he entrusted this gift to me.

There are only a very small handful of people who have been found to have this same kind of memory, and for whatever reason, I am one of those people. It’s been an incredibly fascinating and exciting and thoroughly humbling experience to be part of the research that’s happening at UC Irvine. This is where they are studying the small group of us. And I feel like, OK, I have an opportunity. For me, having this kind of memory, it’s not just about trivia. It’s not about, “Oh, I remember everything that happened on every day.” It’s like, OK, yes, I remember the events of each day, but what do you do with that? How do you make your life more meaningful because of that? I feel like I’ve been put in this really unusual position because of that, and so I’m grateful more than anything else.

Do you have a favorite memory, one that really stands out to you when you think back over everything that’s happened?
I’m the person who, when I’m running on the treadmill, I’ll be thinking, OK, so today’s February 15. And I’m thinking, OK, what did I do a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago? And then I’ll scroll all the way back, and then I’ll say which have been better, Feb. 14 or Feb. 15 a year ago, two years ago, three years ago? Every month I’m sort of taking stock. OK, what were the top three days of this month? At the end of the year — OK, top 10 days of the year. I don’t even know how to answer that. I will say — no, I can’t. I can’t answer it.

Last year on Feb. 15, what was your day like?
OK, I can tell you exactly. Well first of all, it’s my dad’s birthday, so [I had a] conversation with him. I went out to lunch with five friends of mine. We went to Houston’s Restaurant, and there was a huge wait because it was also President’s Day. It was a Monday last year, and so we had a long wait. I ended up going to Bloomingdale’s next door, and I bought lots of Mac makeup. I got two fabulous lipsticks and a really great eyeliner — actually, two eyeliner pencils — and an eyeshadow.I had lunch with my friends, and then I went back to another friend’s place afterwards. We ended up cooking dinner together. Actually, I made a really fantastic pasta sauce — it was a tomato and onion and butter sauce that was really great. I had just discovered it on one of my favorite food blogs, and we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark that night. I called my dad twice to wish him a happy birthday, so that was my day.

You can ask me any date, and that’s how it works.



What has it been like receiving so much attention for having this memory? You were recently on 60 Minutes. What was that like to have that broadcast on cable television?
It was crazy. That particular episode — it was the highest rated show. They had their largest viewing audience in several years that night, so about 19 million people were tuned in that night. It was amazing. I’ve heard from everybody I’ve ever known. I’ve heard from everybody I don’t know.

I wasn’t allowed to see the show before it was aired. That’s just the 60 Minutes policy. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life because I didn’t know what it was going to be like. Having had countless hours of interviews with the various correspondents and with the scientists and everything, I didn’t know how they were going to put it together, but I thought they did a really great job of weaving it into a coherent narrative. It’s been crazy. My e-mail inbox has been completely flooded, phone calls all over the place. It’s been really fun to hear from so many friends from all these different chapters of my life. Living in New York, I’m always walking around on the street like anybody else, on the subway. I had people stopping me all the time. I had in the next three days after the 60 Minutes piece was aired, I had concerts at Carnegie Hall three nights in a row. I had people coming up to the front of the stage, waiting for me at the stage door to say, “Oh, we saw you,” people stopping me in restaurants, so it’s hilarious. And the thing about it is that I’m exactly the same. I haven’t done anything differently. This is the way I’ve always been. So in some ways it’s hilarious to be receiving all this attention, but at the same time, it’s been a lot of fun.

How long have you been working with UC Irvine?
It’s almost a year and a half now. I first met them, or first contacted them, in August of 2009. A friend had sent me a Wikipedia page about this particular memory, and I was thinking, “Oh wait a minute. That’s what I have.” I always had an idea there must be other people who had a similar ability, and so that compelled me to write a letter to the research team. I got an immediate response and everything just snowballed from there.

How many people have the same type of memory that are at UC Irvine doing the same thing that you are?
Up until this past year, up until the time of the 60 Minutes piece, there were six of us who were scientifically identified as having this. I know that there are some more people who have come out of the woodwork — also a few others who were being tested in the fall. I’m not sure if they’ve been actually confirmed. I need to get a number on that eventually, but maybe it’s fair to say a dozen of us who have this.

Do you have any other comments about what it’s been like living with this type of memory or what it was like adjusting to know that not everyone would remember everything that you said?
In having started working with these neuroscientists at UC Irvine, where they have this major center for memory studies, it’s been really exciting for me to have a chance to explore it and discuss it at length. They’ve done MRIs on me and just seen what’s going on in my brain structurally. That is something that all of us who have this kind of memory share — that there is a certain section of the brain that is dramatically enlarged from most normal brains. I think as more people are coming out of the woodwork, it’ll be really interesting and exciting to see what they can find out once they have a larger control group.

For me, one of the reasons that the UCI researchers were so excited about working with me was I had all these calendars. I had all this proof, and that is a question that has come up or people have commented on. They’ve said, “Well, how do we know what you did on any one particular day?” I’ve been given lots of public events quizzes, and that’s all fine and well. But they’ve said, “But you know, you can be totally making this up, talking about what you were doing in your own life.”

And the thing is, the calendar that my grandmother gave me, which helped us figure out what was going on here — well, she would give me another one of those calendars year after year, and I wrote in it every day. I think I always had some idea. It was like, OK, someday this is going to be useful, or people don’t believe me. Here, I can just hand them the calendar, and they can quiz me. But I don’t think I ever quite imagined that someday I would be giving 25 years worth of calendars to these scientists or to a 60 Minutes film crew and have them just pick dates at random.

The first time that I went to UC Irvine for a whole week of interviews and tests and things, they had 25 years worth of date books and calendars that I had filled in over the years. It was like going into an exam where it was like there were 9,000 possible different questions that they could have asked me. It was like, OK, give it your best shot. I’m ready. Whatever you want to ask me, I’ll talk about it. It’s been absolutely exhilarating in trying to be normal throughout so much of my life — whatever normal is — and then suddenly realizing it’s like having a super power in a way, and I finally get to explore it in a way.

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  • Nancy February 17, 2013 at 4:24 PM

    I'd like to know if you have any clues (other than heredity) about what makes your memory so good. I have alzheimers in my family and I'd like to postpone or avoid that as much as possible.

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