If you’re feeling smug about never forgetting a birthday or anniversary, meet Rick Baron, who can tell you the day, date and time of everything he’s witnessed, seen, heard or read about since he was 11 years old — 39 years ago.
“It is May 19 and I’m sitting here at NBC,” Baron told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday by way of demonstrating an ability that has been confirmed in just two other Americans. “My mind automatically categorizes NBC and May 19 in various ways. Days in 1980 come out the same as 2008. The big story, if it’s 28 years later to the minute, is Mount St. Helens erupting.”
Alert readers e-mailed TODAY to point out that the eruption occurred on May 18, and Baron explained that May 19 was when TODAY reported on the event.
Looking up, as if into his own mind, he continued, one memory leading to another: “On May 19, 1974, a Sunday, the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup. I can remember watching it. They beat the Boston Bruins 1-0 to win 4-2 the Stanley Cup, the biggest celebration in Philadelphia history. You guys ran ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that night — venture to say, the biggest Sunday ratings day to that point in NBC history.”
“It’s not just that you remember there was a horse race that day,” Lauer observed. “You remember it was the Preakness, who won by how much over what other horses.”
That was enough to send Baron back into the memory bank, where he retrieved yet another bit of trivia. “Thirty-five years ago today on NBC, Secretariat won the Preakness. Six years later, in 1979, Spectacular Bid won the Preakness, although it lost the Belmont — also on NBC.”
Memories good and bad
Baron is just the third person in America to have a super-autobiographical memory, according to researchers studying the phenomenon at the University of California-Irvine. The first, Jill Price of Los Angeles, views her perfect recall as more of a curse, because the bad things that have happened in her life keep cropping up to torment her. The second, Brad Williams, a radio reporter in La Crosse, Wis., does not have a problem with bad memories. Neither does Baron, who said he can recall any memory, good, bad or indifferent, then file it away again.
“Bad memories are there in the past — the death of a family member or whatever — but the bad memories you dismiss. There is no reason to linger on them, so they can easily be dismissed in my head,” said the 50-year-old from suburban Cleveland.
Baron was not coached on which dates he would be questioned about on TODAY. As co-host Meredith Vieira joined Lauer, Baron was asked to look at a picture of himself as a smiling young boy wearing a blue suit with a thick head of close-cropped dark hair.
“Oh, my goodness,” he exclaimed. “That was taken on Monday, Oct. 25, 1965. I was in third grade … and, the big thing that night, albeit on a rival network, William Frawley was the guest star on ‘The Lucy Show.’ It’s fascinating, because it was the first reunion of Fred Mertz and Lucille Ball on the show since ‘I Love Lucy.’ ”
Another picture came up, this one of an older Baron with longer hair and a lilac shirt.
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“That was my ninth-grade picture,” he said with delight. “In those days, school started the Wednesday after Labor Day. The first day of ninth grade was Mon- — I’m sorry, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 1971. The picture was taken five days later, the day Gene Vincent of ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ fame died — Wednesday, Oct. 13, 1971.”
Oops! Even the perfect memory makes mistakes. Baron transposed Monday, Sept. 13 with the October date he heard about Vincent’s death, which had actually occurred on Oct. 12.
Different brain structure
But time and again, he nailed events and when they happened. UC-Irvine researchers aren’t sure how he, Price and Williams do it, but they suspect that their brains have a different structure than most people’s. There is also some evidence that the ability is linked to the same areas of the brain that are identified with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Baron’s sister, Laurie Kestecher, told USA Today that her brother does, indeed, exhibit signs of OCD. For example, she said, he arranges his money in the order of the city of the Federal Reserve bank that issued the bills. “Everything has to be in order,” she told the newspaper.
Baron said that as a child, he realized that the calendar repeats itself. For example, the 2008 calendar will repeat itself in 2014 and then again in 2025.
“At age 12, I was able to figure out the calendar,” Baron said. “I was given the date of my bar mitzvah, Dec. 26, 1970, so I could recollect events in 1964 that overlapped — the Browns win the NFL title, Sunday, Dec. 27 — ’59 overlapped — so from then on, it all flows, the past, the future.”
Returning for a second appearance with TODAY’s Al Roker and Meredith Vieira, Baron explained that he first realized he had perfect recall when he heard about the New York City blackout of 1965, when he was 8. “It fascinated me, the whole thing,” he said. “And I realized that reading about, hearing or seeing an event — it stuck in my head.”
He can remember many things from that age, but his total recall dates to three years later, when he was 11.
Baron said that smells and sounds can set off memories. If, for example, he hears a car with a bad muffler, he’ll think about the day he took his own car in to replace a bad muffler.
His skill has won countless trivia contests and everything from free dinners to 14 free vacations, but, Baron said, he’s not necessarily qualified for “Jeopardy!”
“There’s so many topics I don’t know,” he told Roker and Morales, naming as an example one “Jeopardy!” category he once saw: Portuguese literature. “There’s much more I don’t know than I do know,” he said affably.
Baron has been a magazine researcher and a radio announcer, but said that at the moment he’s between jobs. He expressed optimism that his TODAY appearance would help him find employment.
“Hopefully, with this, something good is going to come out of it,” Baron said.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints