Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Fridays, Crick would take loads of papers with him to read over the weekend.

We hold a weekly journal club. It is called "the Brain Club." I regard the reading of journal papers as an important part of the education for graduate students. At first, it might take even a week to understand the significance of a paper, and present it to the lab members. As you get accustomed to the genre, you start reading the paper very rapidly. When you are thoroughly accustomed, you may be able to read a typical neuroscience paper in 10 minutes, and tell the gist of it to your colleague.

I got my Ph.D at University of Tokyo under the supervision of Dr. Takeyuki (Taki) Wakabayashi. Taki did research a few years at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Taki used to say that Francis Crick read a lot of papers. On Fridays, Crick would take loads of papers with him to read over the weekend.

Training yourself to read lots of research papers is fun, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to people of high intellectual aspirations. Nowadays, it is very easy to do, as many papers are available on the internet for free. You don't have to belong to a university, or any institution whatever.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I always remember the glorious moment for the bass boys.

Nowadays, when I work in the morning, I listen to Messiah of George Frideric Handel. It is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music.

When I was a senior high student, we practiced the Hallelujah chorus. I was a bass. All the good parts are taken by the soprano and tenor. There was, however, one passage where the bass went solo.

"And he shall reign forever and ever"

For this particular line, the bass went first, and then the other vocal parts followed. We the bass boys were naturally very proud of it, and waited eagerly for that eternal moment.

Messiah's music is beautiful all through, and I can only marvel at the genius of Handel. When it comes to the Hallelujah chorus, I always remember the glorious moment for the bass boys. There is at least one shining moment in life for an underdog.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The whole process of ordering, eating, and then leaving would fall into a jazzy pace

Just outside the ticket gate of Ginza subway station in central Tokyo, there's a curry restaurant that I like. I have been the customer there since my university days. It is not a fanciful place. Just an ordinary establishment, where the curry and rice is served quickly, as you order them at the counter and wait.

I used to go to the Kabuki theater and nearby cinemas often as a student. When you are alone and hungry, you would like to get done with the ritual of filling your stomach quickly, without any fuss. At such occasions, the curry place would be a prime choice, where the whole process of ordering, eating, and then leaving would fall into a jazzy pace.

In and out of Tokyo, I have several places like the Ginza curry restaurant, my solitary meal destinations. I used to go quite often to a yakisoba restaurant in Ueno station, which is close to my old university. The yakisoba place was just beside the stairs, and you would buy tickets before ordering. As you waited for the culinary delight to arrive, watching the cooks using large forks and tongs, your expectations would grow. As I remember the place, noises and smells and the whole atmosphere come back so vividly.

Sadly, the Ueno restaurant is no longer with us, after the huge renovation the station went through several years ago. There is
now a Hard Rock cafe near the ancient yakisoba restaurant place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The remarkably late realization on the part of Rick

Now I am back in Tokyo. Reflecting on my encounter with Rick Baron, I think the most remarkable fact was that although Rick is gifted with this most astonishing ability to recall autobiographical memories, he is at the same time good at social skills, and warm to people. In other words, there is no apparent effect of "trade-offs" in his overall cognitive skills.

I think this fact had partly to do with the remarkably late realization on the part of Rick (two years ago) that his special talent is something rare in this world. Indeed, there are only four confirmed cases of hyperthymesia so far. Because Rich Baron is such a nice and "normal" person, nobody including himself suspected that his brain was so special.

The crew from Fuji television filming Rick Baron.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

It always has a human touch

On the final day in Cleveland, we went to various places with Rick Baron.

About one hour after shopping in a liquor shop, I asked him if there were anything particular that he remembered from the shop. Rick came forward with the list of items we bought, complete with their prices, in a very straightforward and spontaneous manner. I, on the other hand, had only a fuzzy idea about what we have bought, let alone the prices.

The strange thing is that as you get accustomed to Rick's way, you feel as if it is only natural to remember things with precise chronological data. Failure to do so start to look like embarrassing.

One could not learn to perform like Rick by training, though. After spending a few days with Rick Baron, I am convinced that his remarkable memory ability is something that he was born with. It is not an acquirable skill. Even if the trick of retrieving the precise chronological information could be mastered after many years of strenuous efforts, the resulting memory skill would not be in its nature equivalent to Rick's.

In other words, Rick's memories are "personalized". It always has a human touch, and adds warmth to the information he gives away in such a positive and reassuring manner.

Watching the Super Bowl, New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts, with Rick Baron in a Cleveland Sports Bar 7th February 2010.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Rick, you are better even than google!

In the radio station, Rick Baron took phone calls from the listeners, who challenged Rick to say what day of the week it was, and what events happened, on the specific day that they quoted, most often their birthdays. Rick unfailingly told them the correct day of the week, and some memorable events on that particular day. When the day happened to be "quiet", Rick offered to mention events that happened prior to, or just after, the date quoted.

At present, we do not understand the details of the mechanisms of memory encoding and retrieval in the human brain. And yet, the existence of an outstanding individual like Rick Baron is a certain testimony of the capability of the human memory circuit. It shows that, given appropriate wirings, it is possible to be a "memory genius" like Rick, being able to retain and then retrieve at will the details of one's life in a precise chronological order.

Given the long period over which human memory system has evolved, one wonders why for most of us the memory system fails, in that it is unable to do the feat that is so natural for an person like Rick Baron. For some unknown reasons, the human brain seems to have chosen not to optimize its retention abilities, in order to achieve a balanced state of functionalities. There are likely to be trade-offs.

On the 2nd day, we visited Rick's house again.

Rick has several glass and porcelain objects of elephants with their trunks pointing upwards on the glass table in the living room. When asked for their significance, Rick mentioned that they were originally meant to wish good luck for his mother, who was ill at that time. The geometrical accuracy with which Rick spatially arranged these things were truly remarkable. And not only the elephants. Chairs, paper towels, clothes, glasses, cups, photo stands, pictures, shoes. It was apparent that Rick paid attention to the details of the spatial arrangement of things.

Sitting in his room, looking at the items placed in a meticulous order, one gets a feeling which could only described as a sense of awe, in the presence of the workings of a remarkable mind. You almost feel as if you are in a shrine, where things bear significance of things other than earthly functionalities.

As we asked Rick to perform further sets of tests, the extent of his remarkable autobiographical memory became more apparent. A casual conversation led to Rick's remark that we could name any "niche" subject, and Rick would give accurate chronological information on that.

"When did you first fly on an airplane?" I asked. Rick chuckled, and then went on to describe his life's very first airborne travel with the date and the day of the week provided. Not only that, he went on to list the subsequent flights, cities of origin and destinations, complete with the date and the day of the week.

As we remained silent in admiration of this sparkling intellectual stunt, Rick continued his demonstration, by recalling the films he has seen, music he has heard, and people he has met, with a perfect chronological order.

In one session, we chose a random date by throwing a dart on a calendar of the past 40 years. When the dart landed on, say, 14th June 1978, we asked Rick what happened on that date. Rick would start bursting with information. Meanwhile, a few staff members tried to verify what Rick said by conducting a search on the internet.

When the incident that Rick mentioned was a historic event, it was easy to confirm its truth by the internet. Even so, it sometimes took painfully long to affirm Rick's claims. Becoming impatient, Rick kept saying "you know you must take my words. You cannot make up history".

Memories of personal experiences such as going to see the films were naturally difficult to confirm. In these cases, we had to literally take Rick's words as they were, although the natural way in which he came forward with the information was convincing in itself.

Most interesting were the cases where Rick remembered things which could be confirmed in principle, but were difficult to do so in practice even using the vast data now being accumulated on the internet.

For example, Rick mentioned that he saw an episode of "Honeymooners" on October 20th 1962, the present blog writer's birthday. Rick said that it was broadcast as part of a show. He was about 5 years old then. In such a case, it should be in principle possible to verify Rick's claim by objective records. However, it is not certain whether a record exists of the television programming in Cleveland area on that particular day, such a long time ago. In such a case, what Rick remembers should be more detailed and (presumably) accurate compared to what is currently available on the web.

"Rick, you are better even than google!" I finally exclaimed. At this, Rick Baron laughed with his characteristic big smile.

Photos of the Rick Baron Interview.

Rick Baron

I came all the way to Cleveland to meet with Mr. Rick Baron.

Rick's condition is termed "hyperthymesia", where the individual has a remarkable ability to recall his or her autobiographical memory. Researchers at University of California Irvine are investigating the nature of Rick's special abilities. So far, there are four confirmed cases of hyperthymesia in the United States. One of them is Jill Price, who has authored a book describing her experience as someone who cannot forget. Rick Baron is one of the four.

Rick Baron lives in the suburban Cleveland, in a surrounding of typical American residential area. It was a cloudy day in Cleveland. As I left the car, occasional snowflakes were falling from the sky onto my coat.

When I pressed the bell, the door was immediately opened. A well-built gentleman appeared, with a broad smile on his face. I shook hands with Rick Baron.

Once in his house, and after some small talk, I sat down to have the first conversation with Rick.

When I said that I was born on 20 October 1962, Rick smiled. Apparently, it was too easy for him. "You know it was Saturday", he said. "You know what happened two days after you were born?" I shook my head. "No, I have no clue". "It was the Cuban missile crisis", Rick said.

Later, I checked out the facts, and confirmed that on 22nd October 1962, President Kennedy delivered a key public speech in which he declared that " It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

When I showed Rick some logos of national football teams, he smiled, again apparently anticipating what I was going to ask. "Is it perhaps too easy for you?" I remarked in advance.

When I pointed to the logo of a blue star, Rick immediately recognized it as the emblem of Dallas Cowboys. Then he went on to explain that Dallas Cowboys won their first Super Bowl title in year blah blah blah , and then in year so and so, citing the exact dates and scores. Then he went on to name the manager of Dallas Cowboys, from the initial appointee onwards.

"This is apparently a piece of cake for you," I said.

"Well, you see, sequential information the easiest for me." Rick answered.

When I pointed to another seal, Rick immediately replied that it was that of New Orleans saints, and went on to do the same feat as he did for Dallas Cowboys.

When I asked him "when did you realize that you had special abilities", Rick replied that he did not until 2007, when a conversation with one of his friends prompted him to contact the researchers at University of California at Irvine. Rick was then tested over the phone whether he was a genuine hyperthymesiac, going through a series of trivia quiz that he successfully passed.

"Isn't it remarkable that you came to realize your talent so late in your life?" I said. Rick shrugged his shoulders.

"It was something so natural to me. I did win in the trivia quiz contests, but that was about all."

The way Rick spoke, it was as if accurately holding all those autobiographical memories was something that was natural to him like breathing and heart beating.

Glancing around in his house, one could not help noticing the meticulous care with which Rich tidied the place, ordering things in a almost perfect symmetrical arrangement.

Later in the evening we followed Rick Baron to 1420 AM WHK radio station, for appearance in the Kelly & Company program, hosted by Tom Kelly. I joined Rick, and made my debut in an English language radio show.

With Rick Baron

With Rick Baron.

With Rick Baron in the WHK radio.

With Rick Baron and Tom Kelly