Author: A.R Luria
This relatively short book is about an exceptional man with an extraordinary memory capacity. The author introduced him as ‘a Jewish boy who, having failed as a musician and as a journalist, had become a mnemonist‘. Whilst the focus of the book is the subject’s ‘vast memory‘, what the author eventually depicts is a man whose total personality is truly unique and complex. What emerges is a picture of a strange man with very great expectations but unfulfilled ambitions, whose inexhaustible memory capacity is matched only by his enigmatic nature. Quite fascinating is the author’s forensic and painstaking unraveling of the underlying mechanism behind this man’s phenomenal memory and unusual character (page 4). The book’s comprehensive approach was guided by the author’s precept that ‘the thoughtful physician is never interested merely in the course of a disease he happens to be studying at the moment, but tries to determine what effect a disturbance has on other organic processes…thus giving rise to the total picture of disease’ (pages 4-5). He exemplified this precept throughout the book, urging others to follow his example and study other psychological syndromes such as this (page 5).
The author, a psychologist and neurologist, studied the protagonist, now known as Solomon Shereshevsky, for almost thirty years, starting in the 1920’s. His approach was methodical, typified by a keen attention to detail, and carried out over a long period of time. What he unearthed was a rare and exceptional man whose memory he described as ‘one of the keenest the literature on the subject has ever described’ (page 3). It didn’t take much testing for the author to realise that ‘it was impossible to establish a point of limit to the capacity or the duration of his memory’ because he had the ability to retain an almost infinite amount of information (pages 11-12 and 61). The extent of his memory goes back to recollection of events that occurred in his infancy, and he is able to ‘guarantee rapid, precise recall of any type of material, regardless of circumstances’ (pages 75 and 41). By perfecting his skills of recollection, he established a reputation as a professional mnemonist, able to effortlessly recall a limitless number of senseless words, made-up mathematical formulae, and foreign language phrases (pages 43-56).
The author’s thorough assessments established two main mechanisms that explain the mnemonist’s phenomenal memory. The main method appears to be his eidetic imagery which enables him to visualise information as very graphic images (pages 62-63). The other mechanism is his striking synaesthesia which enables him to perceive sounds as intense sensations of taste and touch, or as visual images, such as splashes or puffs of steam (pages 21-24). His perception of numbers was such that ‘1’ appears to him as ‘somehow firm and complete‘, and ‘4’ as ‘square and dull‘ (page 26). His synaesthesia turned out to be all-encompassing, such that, for him, there was no distinction between vision and hearing, or hearing from touch or taste (page 27). For example, the book quotes the mnemonist as saying, ‘I recognize a word not only by the images it evokes but by a whole complex of feelings that image arouses’. He could therefore, extraordinarily, perceive the colour of voices, and the weight of words (pages 26-28).
Perhaps more fascinating than the mnemonist’s memory is his ability to voluntarily control many of his internal bodily functions. For example, he could ‘arbitrarily regulate his heart activity and his body temperature‘, and simultaneously lower the temperature of one hand, whilst increasing it in the other (pages 139-140). The author was most astonished to discover that ‘by virtue of his imagination he would have far greater control over his own body processes than other men’, going on to describe these inexplicable feats as ‘phenomena so amazing that we will many times be left with the feeling little Alice had after she slipped through the looking glass and found herself in a strange wonderland‘ (pages 138-139 and 73).
In sharp contrast to the unlimited capacity of the menomonist’s memory, the author uncovered very startling shortcomings in his other cognitive abilities. These paradoxical deficiencies were indeed legion, and included poor logical and organisational skills; difficulty understanding metaphors and synonyms; and an inability to appreciate abstract concepts such as ‘infinity‘ and ‘nothing‘ because, to ‘grasp the meaning of things’, he had to be able to visualise them (pages 58-59, 119-124, and 130-131). Furthermore, his synaesthetic images significantly interfered with his ability to pay attention. When reading, for example, ‘each word he read produced images that distracted him and blocked the meaning of a sentence’ (page 113-114 and 128-129). Even more worrying is that ‘the images his imagination conjured up took on the feel of reality’, with the effect that he was frequently unable to distinguish between reality and imagination, because ‘the borderline between the two had broken down’ (page 144). As a consequence of all these drawbacks, the general picture the author painted of the mnemonist was of ‘a somewhat anchorless person’ who led a disorganised life (pages xxvii and 158).
This is a detailed and fascinating account of a unique individual whose remarkable boundless memory capacity is intertwined with a vivid eidetic memory and powerful synesthesia. And associated with this is a complex personality with marked impairments in his other cognitive and social skills. The author’s study is forensic, and the telling masterly. Particularly helpful are the brief but excellent introductions and summaries he appended to each chapter. The author was instrumental in establishing the tradition of detailed single case studies which has influenced generations of doctor-writers who have adopted his comprehensive approach.
This case study is unique, both in terms of the subject matter, and in the form of presentation. It is a masterclass in detailed studies of single subjects, combining detailed scientific study with the art of story telling. The book is remarkable for its comprehensiveness and depth of inquiry, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Harvard University Press, London, 1968
Number of Chapters: 7
Number of Pages: 160
Star rating: 5