The News-Leader’s Answer Man: The barista with a photographic memory

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Starbucks barista Hannah Howland, 26, will start your order for a Matcha Green Tea Latte, for example, before you even place it.

She will type in your Barnes & Noble membership number — which is a customer’s phone number — before you give it to her.

“Hannah has a photographic memory,” says Dee Wampler, a Springfield defense lawyer, who typically stops by to pick up a New York Times at Barnes & Noble.

Howland tells me Wampler is exaggerating. But on the other hand, she does not know the definition of “photographic memory.”

According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “an unusual ability to remember things completely and exactly as they were seen, read, etc.”

From what Howland tells me, she has this “unusual ability.”

With customers she has not seen for months, she can recall their usual order, their phone number, and their name.

“Their name is the hardest for me to remember,” she tells me.

“Sometimes I get all three right. Sometimes I only get one. That is why I’m hesitant to claim that I have a photographic memory. It’s because I am not perfect.”

She has been a Starbucks barista at Barnes & Noble, 3055 S. Glenstone Ave., for five years. She is a Barnes & Noble employee. 

Sound of a voice can recall a number

In her 40-hour workweek, she estimates she sees several hundred customers.

Further, she estimates about 40 percent have a membership card, which is good for a 10 percent discount.

Of that 40 percent, she says, she estimates she can recall over half of their phone numbers. 

At times, she says, she sees a face and immediately remembers the phone number which, again, is their membership number.

At other times, she says, she suddenly recalls the number when she hears the person speak.

In other words, her cue for remembering the number is the memory of the sound of the customer’s voice.

“With phone numbers in particular, there is a cadence.”

In some instances, it’s “muscle memory.”

She cannot recall the number until she places her fingers on the keyboard.

“I can remember the pattern the numbers make on the keyboard,” she tells me.

According to a 2010 article that appeared on the website Smithsonian.com:

“Scientists have long known that recording a memory requires adjusting the connections between neurons. Each memory tweaks some tiny subset of the neurons in the brain (the human brain has 100 billion neurons in all), changing the way they communicate.

“Neurons send messages to one another across narrow gaps called synapses. A synapse is like a bustling port, complete with machinery for sending and receiving cargo— neurotransmitters, specialized chemicals that convey signals between neurons.

“… According to this view, the brain’s memory system works something like a pen and notebook. For a brief time before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. But after the memory is consolidated, it changes very little.”

I should note that the point of the story was that this traditional theory on memory was being challenged by researchers who argue that each time an old memory is retrieved, it is altered.

She thought her memory was normal

Howland was homeschooled, she says, along with her younger brother, now 24.

As a result, she did not think her ability to retrieve memories was that unusual.

For example, she remembers being able to remember entire pages from history books.

“I did not have a lot of interaction with other children,” she says.

It wasn’t until she was 18 and went to work taking orders at a McDonald’s that customers — just like Wampler and other customers at Starbucks — mentioned to her that she has an uncanny memory.

If this all sounds normal to you, maybe this will not.

Howland has memorized — word for word — several Disney movies, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas,” “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Aladdin.” 

She also can rattle off the dialogue from all three “Lord of the Rings” movies.

“My husband says I need help,” she says.

The website The Human Memory states:

“Contrary to the popular notion, memories are not stored in our brains like books on library shelves but must be actively reconstructed from elements scattered throughout various areas of the brain by the encoding process. 

“… The indications are that, in the absence of disorders due to trauma or neurological disease, the human brain has the capacity to store almost unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Forgetting, therefore, is more likely to be result from incorrectly or incompletely encoded memories, and/or problems with the recall/retrieval process.

“It is a common experience that we may try to remember something one time and fail, but then remember that same item later. The information is therefore clearly still there in storage, but there may have been some kind of a mismatch between retrieval cues and the original encoding of the information.”

An Aug. 31, 2010 story in Live Science states:

“The connections between neurons associated with a memory eventually become a fixed combination, so that if you hear a piece of music, for example, you are likely to be flooded with other memories you associate with a certain episode where you heard that same music.”

Perhaps that is how Howland can recall a phone number by hearing a customer’s voice.

Regardless, she says, she enjoys one of the byproducts of her remarkable memory.

“It helps me bond with customers,” she says. “People get very touched when they are remembered. They like it because it makes them feel special.

“If you remember someone’s name, they get happy, and that makes me happy.”

But she does want to creep anyone out.

She wants her Starbucks customers to know, “I am not even trying. I promise. I didn’t mean to.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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