Trouble Thinking

March 31, 2010

A Little Post About a Vast Memory

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 5:00 pm

You want a perfect memory. That isn’t a question, I can see into your tiny little head and know your imaginings. For one of my stature it is basically child’s play.

Now you’re thinking about the movies with that little killer doll man in them, don’t bother thanking me for reminding you of their proper name. No, do thank me.

You dream of schoolwork being simpler, never forgetting that important phone number, remembering every detail of every book you’ve ever read. Your life would be so easy if only you could remember things when you wanted to, instead of when your fickle mind decides to retain vital information. Too bad that’s totally impossible, though.

No it is not. It’s just impossible for you. For a man called Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevskii, it was just life.

Solomon’s life was for the most part uneventful. Born in the late 1800’s in a small town in Russia, Solomon grew up expecting to use his musical talent to make his way in the world. He would have likely continued studying music, had an ear infection not robbed him of some of his ability to hear and making it difficult to improve his playing. While looking for work, he discovered that journalism suited him well. The only thing remarkable about him was that he didn’t learn how to forget information until his late 30’s.

Solomon came to the attention of psychologist Alexander Luria when he was sent for a consultation by his editor. He had been attending meetings without taking any notes, which seemed like slacking off to the editor. When asked, however, he could recite perfectly the entire text of everything said at any meeting he had attended. Which was an excellent come-back, but also intensely strange. If asked to recall their previous ten meetings, most people respond with nothing more than a strangled scream.

Luria began in the 1920’s his early sessions attempting to establish a limit to the memory capacity enjoyed by Solomon. After all, without knowing the scope of the ability, it would be hard to study. Luria failed to establish this limit. He easily recited hundreds and hundreds of numbers, words, and nonsense syllables forward and backward. He didn’t pause to “commit to memory”, either. Solomon simply required that Luria speak clearly and slowly enough that he was certain he could hear everything, and he immediately retained the information as perfectly as though he had made it up. Over the course of 30 years, Solomon never forgot a single sequence he was asked to remember. Luria at times requested that Solomon recall sequences of hundreds of nonsense syllables he had been told to remember 20 years ago, which Solomon did as if he was reading them off a blackboard. This was after Solomon had become a professional Mnemonist, remembering thousands upon thousands of arbitrary series before crowds. In fact, Solomon reported that the most difficult aspect of performing was learning to temporarily forget information, suppressing his recall by force of will so that he wouldn’t accidentally recite the sequence he was asked to remember last week instead of the one he was on right now. This confused the hell out of Luria, who had figured, like most of us, that memory was a capacity to be filled with experience and facts and that a large capacity or a lengthy retaining of information was possible. Infinite recall presented an interesting challenge to that assumption.

Now, it was a matter of discovering exactly how Solomon’s infinite memory functioned. Solomon at first described his memorization of tables as a function of being able to “see” the table after it had been taken away, making reading off the strings of numbers or letters easy. He would misread only if the numbers or letters were written illegibly, like “3” for “8” or vice versa. Not unlike most conceptions of a “photographic memory”. It was only after some further experimentation that it became clear to Luria that Solomon was not quite recalling things in the manner most people remember. Solomon reported that when people spoke to him during recall, he saw “splashes” or “puffs of steam” that required him to “move” the table in order to see better again. This was the first indication that he may possess an odd quality called Synesthesia. Synesthesics experience sensations that go beyond what we think of as standard, they taste sound or see tastes or any variety of comingling of the senses. Solomon described a note at 50 Hz and 100 Decibels as “A brown strip against a dark background that had red, tongue-like edges and a taste like sweet and sour borscht gripping his entire tongue.” Rather than just being strange, this experience seemed to contribute to the enormously vast memory that Solomon displayed.

Memory was literally a walk in the park for Solomon. He described his feats of memory as taking a mental walk down the streets of locations with which he was familiar. Say he was asked to remember the words “egg, bike, man, splash”. Instead of reciting them in his short-term memory in an effort to retain them, he simply placed the images along a street, the egg lying against a brick wall, the bike chained to a fence down the street, the man standing near a stoop past the bike, and a puddle splashing nearby. Solomon could then walk up and down the street. He never forgot because for him it was simply a matter of reporting what he was seeing. He was able to do this in part due to the synesthesia he displayed. When he heard words, or even simply noises, he saw vivid representations of them or of their component parts if he didn’t understand them as words. In order to deal with this influx of information he would sprinkle images along the road. Of course, saying it like this makes it sound like a deliberative and time consuming process. In reality, so long as there was a moderate pause between words or numbers to eliminate the possibility of mis-hearing anything Solomon performed this feat effortlessly.

This powerful memory came with some downsides, though. For instance, words that were “separated” by long “distances” were more taxing for him to recall. Familiar Russian words allowed him to stick near home, but if they were followed by the words “Native American” Solomon was forced to travel quite a ways to put them into a sensible context. Solomon also, oddly, had incredible trouble with strings that you and I would find very simple. For instance: remembering a number like “349685417” is quite difficult wheras remembering the number “123456789”, an equal number of digits, is significantly easier. For Solomon, each number is equally easy to recall. It seems Solomon, due to his never forgetting, never developed what we think of as natural ways to think more efficiently, logic was for the most part foreign to him because it was almost never required of him. He also had difficulty with certain things we take for granted. Faces, for instance, confused Solomon. Faces changed constantly over time, changing expression and mood in an instant.

Solomon ran into trouble because he frequently remembered exact faces in certain expressions, rather than simply recognizing people regardless of their expression for more general traits. This also made it essentially impossible for Solomon to deal with metaphor and abstraction, at evidence in his almost complete inability to comprehend poetry. One line from a poem “Sunset came as usual, gigantic it rumbled” was troublesome for him because “Sunset rumbled- that’s impossible. A sunset is something idyllic. As for grass rocking, that’s not right. Little blades of grass don’t rock; a tree does. And so I saw sedge grass. But if the sunset is idyllic, what’s making the grass stir so that it rocks?” Solomon had no trouble reciting poems in exacting specificity, but that ability to recite came at a cost to understanding. Each and every word Solomon heard carried with it a host of information about context and feeling and sight and sound and taste. Saying “sunset rumbled” creates an image in our minds that carries metaphorical weight. Solomon couldn’t deal with metaphors, he simply saw “Sunset” with a host of attached sensations that clashed with the sensations of “Rumbled”. It’s almost as if his immense capacity for recall and natural glut of information has caused him to ignore the shortcuts people who don’t have his ability use to make sense of things, such as metaphor. This not unlike his inability to notice simple logical progressions, both problems of a lack of ability but also a lack of a need to generalize in order to deal with the world.

The interesting case of Solomon Sheresheveskii brings into question the natural assumptions we make about memory. We feel that our memories are gathered and looked at in the moment, are stuffed into a crate for long term storage, and decay over time or with lack of use. Solomon experienced nothing like this. He recalled millions of bits of information over the course of his lifetime with perfect clarity in front of a live audience, and never stumbled. For Solomon, the experience of “Short Term” and “Long Term” memory was simply not there. Events occurred, and he could tell you what they were if you wanted to know. Although it has been almost a hundred years since Alexander Luria began speaking to Solomon, we are still far from understanding how our own memories work, much less why his worked in such an alien manner. One theory that has since been brought up is that the vast memory he displayed was due to the lack of a capacity to forget, that normally the human memory is governed, so to speak. We forget things that have no bearing on our day to day lives as a way of allowing us to focus on other things. Numbers we need to recall for a moment or a street we’ve walked down once don’t need to stay with us until the day we die. We perform logic, we understand poetry, we recall the faces of dear friends after many years; Solomon did not. Coming face to face with what a perfect memory actually means makes us realize what a fantastic memory we seem to possess.

If you’re interested in the full story, you should pick up “The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory” by A. R. Luria. It’s wonderfully well written and incredibly interesting.

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