Thanks for the Memory

The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory

by A.R. Luria
Basic Books, 160 pp., $4.95

Not only was the subject of this book a prodigy, a man with a memory so “good” as to be pathological, but the book too is a portent in the present state of scientific psychology. Professor Luria was prominently associated with the psychoanalytic movement in Russia in the days before official opinion had established that Freud was a bad thing, but his psychological work since then, highly respected in the Soviet Union and the West, has been ideologically blameless. His studies of language, thought, and conflict have been experimental, and the title of his best known book, Higher Cortical Functions in Man, has the true Pavlovian ring. Yet now without hesitation or apology he plunges in among mentalistic concepts galore—images, fantasies, sensations, perceptions, desires, emotions, attention—and the study not only includes introspections but entirely depends on them. You might be reading a psychological report of 1905, but here it is, written in 1965, and now warmly endorsed by Jerome Bruner of Harvard. The fact is that currently respectable terminology and method would not have served, and a purist experimenter determined to countenance no departure from the objective and “measureable” would have thrown away an immense opportunity.

Luria’s subject, S., was a journalist, sent to the psychological laboratory by an editor who discovered his freakish memory; but during the period of the observation, begun in the 1920s when he was just under thirty and continued off and on until his death almost thirty years later, he tried several jobs and ended up a mnemonist, giving performances in which members of the audience provided long lists of material of all kinds which he could memorize after one hearing and reproduce with only very rare mistakes. Luria’s early experiments with him showed that it was futile to try to establish limits to the length of lists that S. could memorize, and—even more astonishing—that there appeared to be no decay of the memory with time:

In fact, some of these experiments designed to test his retention were performed (without his being given any warning) fifteen or sixteen years after the session in which he had originally recalled the words. Yet invariably they were successful. During these test sessions S. would sit with his eyes closed, pause, then comment: “Yes, yes…. This was a series you gave me once when we were in your apartment…. You were sitting at the table and I in the rocking chair…. You were wearing a gray suit and you looked at me like this…. Now, then, I can see you saying….” And with that he would reel off the series precisely as I had given it to him at the earlier session. If one takes into account that S. had by then become a well-known mnemonist, who had to remember hundreds and thousands of series, the feat seems even more remarkable.

Indeed at one time, slightly worried that he might confuse a list just given him with one of his innumerable series from past performances, S. tried…

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