Imagine being able to remember everything or feeling no pain. Four people with extraordinary abilities reveal how their superpower has shaped their lives Michael Segalov
Edited By Alex Santiago
‘I’ve never felt physical pain’: Jo Cameron, 72, Whitebridge, Scotland
I can understand why it took so long for anyone to notice. It makes sense that the quiet, happy person in the corner gets ignored. It was only when I was in hospital for an operation on my arthritic hand – aged 65 – that the fact I can’t feel pain finally came to light.
I’d only recently had a long-overdue hip replacement. “This will hurt more than the last one, you’ll need more painkillers,” the hospital anaesthetist had told me. I offered to bet any money it wouldn’t when I looked up at him with a smile.
He came to see me after the procedure and I wiggled my hand in his face, proudly. “No painkillers,” I said, grinning, “and no pain either.”
Down in London, I went for tests at University College Hospital. In the experiments, my husband was used as the standard – they even took a biopsy from his leg. The researchers found an abundance of a substance called anandamide in my body – so much that I never experience anxiety, fear or pain. Instead, my genes make me happy and forgetful – finally, an explanation for why it feels like every other week I lose the keys to my car.
Before then I’d just assumed I was clumsy, although when I thought about it properly, lots of things began to make sense in retrospect. This explained why I often get undressed and see bruises that I’ve no recollection of acquiring; why during childbirth, after some serious pushing I felt nothing more than a considerable stretch. It’s why the only way I know if I’ve burned myself while cooking is when the aroma of meat reaches my nostrils. I’m a vegan, so what I’m smelling is actually my own scorched flesh.
There was even the time we went on a backpacking holiday in eastern Europe. On the first morning I fell over and went head first into a huge concrete slab. I lost my front teeth and gained a black eye – there were cuts all over my face. The family thought we’d go home, but I just whacked on my sunglasses, wrapped a scarf around my mouth, made a rule there would be no pictures of me and we carried on. They all must have just thought I was trying to be strong for them as a mum.
My happy gene also makes me incredibly positive: I’m wired to look on the bright side of life. I may not feel pain, but I see it on the faces of people around me, on television. And when something sad happens in my life, of course it affects me, it’s just that the sadness doesn’t consume all I do. A few minutes later I’m thinking practically, whirring into action.
That’s not to say I’m complacent. I’m outraged by injustice and can empathise with those having a tough time. But I’m practical. Vote! Protest! Do something! But don’t be a worrier, on leaving Europe or climate change or anything, really. My attitude is why waste time being a nervous wreck?
I’m pretty certain my father had the same condition, although he’s no longer with us, so it’s impossible to be sure. He never complained about his war wound, and was very open-minded. There was no curfew in the evenings or restrictions on outings with boys. This British Army major would even skip alongside me on the way to school. When a brain haemorrhage killed him – without a word of warning – he just dropped down dead where he was stood.
Once my test results were back, I told the research team that, of course, I’d help them. I’m no neuroscientist, but if they can isolate this gene and reproduce it to help suppress pain in others, the scientists hope to develop a natural form of pain relief. It makes me so pleased to think what the impact of that on other people might be. What’s inside me might be the secret to alleviating the suffering of others, an alternative to often addictive drugs. The funding has come through – the next phase begins in 2020.
At first, the research team thought I was the only person in the world like me, but since my story went public, 80 people from across the globe have come forward to say they think they’re the same. Their bloods are being tested right now, and I’m hoping they’re correct. I’m 72 now, and it’s already taken us seven years to get this far. This could take decades. I might be an optimist, but I’m realistic – at some point they’re going to need some younger volunteers.
‘I’m the fastest human calculator’: Scott Flansburg, 55, Scottsdale, Arizona, America
Pick a date, any day in your life, and I can tell you what day of the week it was. Say a number, any number, and I can multiply it all day. I’m a Guinness World Record holder – the fastest human calculator. I’ve held the title for more than 20 years.
I was just a regular nine-year-old pupil when my teacher wrote a list of two-digit numbers for the class to add together. My teacher could tell I wasn’t paying attention as she explained how numbers are carried over, so she decided to make an example of me by picking me out and sending me up to the board. The standard way to find the total of lots of numbers is to line them up and work downwards right to left, if you can remember. But I assumed that you could do it in the same way you read a sentence – from left to right – and found I could.
By the age of 10, my maths teachers were letting me come up with ideas rather than trying to teach me. I could see all these patterns and started discovering methods of multiplication that worked.
In the end I dropped out of high school. I never made it to college – I signed up to the Air Force instead. I served four years in Japan, and two in America. Then, in 1988, when my military supervisor’s son was struggling in school with maths, I was drafted in to help. I spent an evening showing the child some tricks and shortcuts, giving him a hand.
The next morning I got a call from his teacher: “Who are you,” they asked me, “and what have you done?”
I’ve had an MRI scan, the doctor said he’d never seen a brain like mine
From then, things escalated pretty quickly. I started to speak to classes fairly often, and after a reporter saw my mathematical skills firsthand and filed a story, I was invited on to television – I did the rounds.
I’ve had an MRI scan. The doctor said he’d never seen a brain like mine. It’s almost as if it has a different set of wires. There’s a part of the brain called Brodmann area 44, or BA44, and mine is naturally four times the normal size. I’ve met a few other people with similar abilities at competitions: Yusnier Viera, Gerald Newport and Lee Jeonghee.
For me it’s all about arithmetic, sums and numbers. I never went on to study higher level maths. I spend my life working to inspire kids to engage in the subject at that basic level, the point at which so many disconnect. That’s also how I keep myself interested – for me there’s no mental challenge in the arithmetic everyone else has to think hard for; it’s all about thinking of new and exciting educational ideas.
My skills used to be useful for companies. Investors, for instance, would want me to look for patterns in their trades. But since the advent of the super computer I’m a little less helpful to them. I’d have been more useful, I think, if I’d been born hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
My next big thing is to get the rest of the world to use the calendar I’ve invented. I’m all about efficiency, and right now the way we measure time is a mess. Sure, we have no control over the fact there are 365 days in a year, but there’s simply no way to make that divide neatly into 12. Forget October, November and December – if you ask me, there should be 13 months in a year, each lasting 28 days, plus a zero day to kick each year off. I’m going to try and convince the world to try it out in 2023, the next time my calendar matches up with yours.
‘I can play any piece of music I’ve ever heard’: Derek Paravicini, 40, London
Like most children, I spent my early years surrounded by music. I’ve always been blind. I was born extremely prematurely, so it is through sound that I experience the world. I had a nanny who looked after me and she tried everything she could think of to interest me. Then one day, when I was 18 months old, she had a brainwave, and retrieved a toy organ from the loft that someone had once bought in Woolworths.
Of course, I don’t remember, but what my family found I could do with it was amazing. Without any help from anyone, I could play the music I’d heard, from Cockles and Mussels to the hymns that my family sang in church. Being blind, I’d never even seen anyone play the piano, but I could copy these tunes – and their accompaniments – note for note.
It became obvious pretty quickly that my musical brain was wired up in an extraordinary way and, once my parents purchased a piano, I’d use everything, from my hands to my head and my elbows, to play what I could hear in my head. They soon realised that my fingers would need help to catch up.
Aged four, at a school for the blind in south London called Linden Lodge, I met Adam Ockelford, who was the music teacher there, and he decided to take me under his wing. He started out by teaching me at home. He tells me I didn’t take kindly to being told what to do. I’d push him out the way and so he’d pick me up and place me in the corner of the children’s room where we practised. He’d play a tune while I found my way back to the piano and then I’d repeat what I’d heard, just like that.
I loved practising and worked really hard, every day before breakfast and in the evenings. I first appeared on TV when I was only eight, in 1987, on the Derek Jameson Show. The next year, I hit the big time, playing the Pink Panther for Terry Wogan on UK national television, with an audience of millions. Suddenly, media from all over the world were interested.
As a teenager I’d often get frustrated and angry, and furniture would fly. But Adam helped me channel all those emotions through music and we would improvise together for hours. Today, playing the piano isn’t just my vocation, it continues to be the key to my emotional wellbeing as well.
It’s hard to explain, but any time I hear a piece of music it goes straight into my memory and stays there. I never forget a piece once I’ve heard it. My musical brain works really fast, too. When I listen to a piece, I can copy it straight away, less than half a second behind. Nobody knows how many songs I know – I certainly don’t. But it must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pieces.
For me, playing the piano is as easy as breathing. At a gig in a school north of Manchester a few years back I fell asleep when I was accompanying my friend Hannah Davey, the classical and jazz singer, but I carried on playing. And there doesn’t seem to be a limit on what I can learn. I memorised a full piano concerto with 11,000 notes just by listening, and played it with orchestras on the South Bank in London and in the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, California.Advertisement
In fact, I do lots of concerts, from schools to some of the world’s great concert halls and arenas – from Taiwan to Las Vegas. I love to entertain people – the bigger the audience the more I like it. And I’ve never been nervous when I perform. I just know I can do it.
People are mystified, because part of the show is when I ask the audience for requests. They can choose anything they like. As long as I’ve heard the music before, I can reproduce it, even if I’ve never played it before. If I haven’t heard it, I just ask them to play it on their phone and then I’m off. Think of a song right now and I’ll be able to play it, whatever it is.
I’m much more than a musical memory machine, though. A Japanese TV company played me sounds once, very quietly: the rattle of a key in the door, a bus going past, birdsong. My heart rate jumped every time. I feel the impact of each sound emotionally. And in real life, I hear everything around me in a musical way, including words I don’t understand. So I just tend to repeat them, as though they were musical notes.
I’m a person of extremes: playing the piano I find easy, but I can’t, for instance, read or write, and, aged 40, I still don’t reliably know my left from my right, so I need help with virtually all everyday tasks. But that doesn’t matter, because I’m a great people person. I love my family and friends from all over the world.
I think that’s the main reason I like playing the piano – it’s my way of keeping in touch. It’s rare, if ever, that I’ll sit and play just for myself. Music is what helps me connect with others; it has become my identity. I’m Derek the piano player, the entertainer. I’m Derek, the musician.
Based on an interview with Derek Paravicini and Professor Adam Ockelford
‘I can remember everything. My brain has no capacity to forget’: Rebecca Sharrock, 30, Brisbane, Australia
I remember it like it was just yesterday, the morning of 6 July 2014. It was a warm, sunny day in California – Mum and I were walking from our motel to Disneyland. I can hear the sound of laughter and music right now, the sweet smell of sugar in my nostrils as everyone rushed giddily around.
My memories from the evening of 5 July 2005 are just as clear. Aged 15, I was at a concert with my sister. An usher was rude to her while I had a little meltdown. Each time I think of it the feelings of depression, anxiety and embarrassment are triggered. I’m transported right back there.
In fact, I can remember every minute of every day in the finest of detail, and each time I experience the emotions I felt afresh. That’s what life with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM, is like. It means, in short, that I have this ability to remember everything, but that also means my brain has no capacity to forget.
At 15, I was diagnosed with autism. When that happened it was no great surprise. A year later I was told I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but my parents and I knew there was something more. And then we saw a segment on a TV news show about HSAM. My mum recognised it in me instantly. From a very young age I would talk to her about things that had happened years before, right down to the back-and-forth of specific conversations. She always said: “Rebecca, live in the present,” while I’d always focus on the past.
I can basically remember all the way back to the beginning, just after my first birthday, being held in my mum’s arms. From then on it’s every conversation, every day out, every celebration. It’s mostly entirely useless, though – like what I had for breakfast, or the most mundane of thoughts. All these memories are in chronological order, so I can work backwards or forwards. If I go back to the days before I really understood calendars, I use the image of my birthday cake and its number of candles as a reference to start. I even remember dreams – those from the first 20 minutes of sleeping. When I had my first at eight months it was quite a shock.
I’ll be honest, it does get annoying. I get headaches and it causes anxiety; I have to listen to music every night as I fall asleep or else I’m constantly having random flashbacks. For a long time I saw it as a curse. Slowly, as I’ve grown a little older, I’ve come to appreciate what my brain gives me. I can memorise lines, which is great for public speaking. That’s what I want to make my career, sharing my experiences with people across the world. While the sentence structures of foreign languages take some getting used to – I’ve been learning a few so I can travel – the words all just stick right away.
Soon I want to put my life down on paper, the moments – big or small – that hold significance. I hope to look at how each affected my life and my future in a way few people can. And I’m starting a business, a support group for other people with autism to overcome obstacles and find their passion.
Nobody is quite sure how my brain can actually hold all this information. It’s why medical researchers from Queensland to California are so keen to poke around up there. They’re attempting to discover which part of the brain is responsible for long-term memory, in the hope of finding ways to help those who are affected by Alzheimer’s, brain damage or strokes. I spend a lot of time having my brain scanned. In the initial tests I was asked to work out which day of the week random dates had been throughout my life. I’d be asked random questions and then to recall my answers five months later.
I’ve spent 90 minutes in an MRI scanner that showed how the conscious and subconscious parts of my mind are more strongly connected than usual. Now they know what my brain can do, they’re more interested in studying its biology. The scientists have already discovered that the memories of people with HSAM usually get clearer with the passage of time, which is the opposite to how most people experience them.
My stepdad’s father passed away a few years ago. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and seeing him go through it all spurred me on to do all I can to help find a cure. I like to joke that people like me are human lab rats, although we’re human lab rats who are very well cared for and loved.
When I’m bored, I sometimes take myself back to a time when I worried about everything and anxiety crippled me. I think about what the 14-year-old me wished for her future, and it makes me truly appreciate the small things I now take for granted – the things I’ve achieved that might otherwise seem mundane. I think about what I thought my life might look like – and I’m proud of just how far I’ve come.
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