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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 writing down some of his lists in the effort to forget them.

Given these findings, Luria understandably concentrated not on how much and how long S. could remember but how he did it. When S. memorized a list of nouns, he needed a few seconds’ pause after each item; this gave S. time to get a visual image of the object and set it at a particular point in an imagined background, commonly at intervals along a familiar street. Once that was done he could just walk along the street, from either end or starting at any point en route, and report the things he’d placed there. Occasional omissions (virtually his only type of mistake) occurred when he put an object against a background it merged with and simply overlooked it as he inspected the scene. He omitted “egg”: “I had put it up against a white wall and it blended with the background…Banner, of course, means the Red Banner. But, you know, the building which houses the Moscow City Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is also red, and since I’d put the banner close to one of the walls of the building I just walked on without seeing it….”

Once committed to working as a memory man he developed techniques for elaborating images around the material, aided by a tendency to spawn associations with extraordinary fecundity. Faced at one performance with a long list of the syllables MA, NA, SA, VA, repeated over and over again in different combinations, he managed to fix them (with one hearing) by combining them in twos or threes and then summoning up constantly fresh images based on remote personal associations and puns in several languages: Four years later he reproduced the lists with a detailed account of the associations that had helped him, and four years later still (Luria says eight years but the dates indicate four) “I had occasion to ask S. to repeat this performance (once again without giving him prior warning). He had no difficulty whatsoever and came through with a faultless reproduction.”

LURIA’S REPORTING is marred by some omissions of factual detail and occasional inconsistencies and contradictions. Even in experimental work Russian psychological reporting has been less meticulous than that of the Americans and British. But although the deficiencies are a reminder of the usefulness of stricter discipline, they detract only in a minor way from the value of the record. The interest of the study lies less in the precise length of lists and dates of recall than in an exploration of the mind and personality of which this freak memory formed part, and in the sidelights thrown, often by contrast, on ordinary mental functioning.

S. was certainly far ahead of most people in the basic processes of retention and recall, but he was also seriously handicapped by the extremely elementary organization of the facts he remembered. For most of us the recall of words, numbers, or events in serial order is a minor part of our remembering. Far more important is the incorporation of a fact into systems of information associated with interests, and the retrieval of it when the interest is activated. This means selective emphasis and omissions, and it may well be that to achieve it we have had to weaken some forms of registration and retention that would equip us with “good” but sequencebound memories. S. had never freed himself from the succession of events in time. This was so even in his initial perceptions. At one performance he was given a chart with numbers arranged in logical order:

1 2 3 4

2 3 4 5

3 4 5 6

etc., and with the usual effort of concentration he recalled the entire series by visualizing the numbers one by one without noticing how they were arranged. He said afterward that if letters of the alphabet had been similarly arranged he would still not have noticed and would simply have memorized them one after the other. He really had what we loosely call a memory “store,” instead of the active processes of organization and reorganization that make up normal remembering.

It may seem tempting to call S.’s kind of memory “primitive,” and preliterate peoples do appear to remember in a more sequential and concrete fashion than most of us. But Frances Yates’s book, The Art of Memory, with its studies of classical and medieval memory systems (of which S.’s method is in some ways reminiscent), shows that highly literate cultures have sometimes chosen to retain and cultivate this kind of memorizing. The idea that printing had a decisive effect on the kind of memory we have developed is natural but perhaps questionable; it underestimates the amount of reading educated people had previously done and the ease with which they dealt in abstractions. The association of the concrete and sequential type of memory with lectures and the abstract and flexible with books is not strictly necessary.

As Luria shows in examining the psychological context of S.’s memory, it was not only his retentiveness but his extraordinarily concrete mode of thinking that made his mind unusual in an adult. Words for him were indissolubly bound up with visual and other images. For us, at least by adolescence, the imagery has been dimmed, and although it may be lurking somewhere the word’s meaning seems independent of it. S. had great difficulty in following abstract argument and even narrative because all the dead metaphors over which we skim from one idea to another were for him vividly concrete images. “Details which other people would overlook,” writes Luria, “or which would remain on the periphery of awareness, took on independent value in his mind, giving rise to images that tended to scatter meaning.”

Yet in some directions he had evidently progressed as we all do—if it is progress—to the point where the metaphor is so faded as to carry meaning with a minimum of concrete imagery. He claimed to have a good grasp of anything to do with economic affairs, and his own reports (though Luria makes no comment on this) employ just the sort of language, including dead metaphors if the translation is accurate here, which baffled him when he had to listen to it. His degree of familiarity with different kinds of subject matter seems crucial, and on this point Luria gives no information. It might be expected that with such intense imagery S. would have an unusually sensitive response to poetry. Actually it baffled him. Perhaps he had not read enough of it, but whatever the reason such vividly concrete images arose to every detail of a poem, sometimes with idiosyncratic associations, that he could completely lose the sense.

BESIDES BEING INTENSE, S.’s imagery was complicated by his remarkable synesthesia. He quite regularly perceived things in several sensory modes at once. “What a crumbly, yellow voice you have,” he said to Vygotsky (one of several well-known Russian psychologists who examined him). Words themselves, apart from their meaning, had sensory qualities:

It’s hard to express…it’s not a matter of vision or hearing but some over-all sense I get. Usually I experience a word’s taste and weight, and I don’t have to make an effort to remember it—the word seems to recall itself. But it’s difficult to describe. What I sense is something oily slipping through my hand…or I’m aware of a slight tickling in my left hand caused by a mass of tiny, lightweight points. When that happens I simply remember, without having to make the attempt…

In his synesthesia, as at so many other points, S. retained in exceptional strength a kind of experience which many people have in childhood and may—as Galton long ago demonstrated—preserve into adult life in a faded or fragmentary form. Normally it fades because it serves little purpose. S. might find it useful to recall the way back to Luria’s institute by the sight of a fence that also had a salty taste and felt rough, besides having a sharp, piercing sound. But synesthesia is so arbitrary and personal that in extreme form it hinders communication. S. explained:

The sound of a word has one distinct form and color, the meaning another form and a particular weight as well, it sounds different… For me to come up with the right word at the right time, I have to fit all this together. On the one hand it makes for complications, but on the other, it is a way of remembering words. If I keep in mind this peculiarity of mine, that I have to adapt to the way others think, that’s one thing. But if I forget this, I’m liable to give people the impression I’m a dull, senseless fellow….

Western psychologists would naturally wonder about S.’s level of intelligence, but it would have been ideologically unsound to test it, and in any case the standard tests would have been of doubtful use with S.’s peculiar pattern of gifts and deficiencies. His solving of mathematical puzzles, aided by the ability to “see” all the elements, makes it clear that he was not dull. But the handicap of his proliferating associations and imagery made it difficult for him to keep to the point of a question or select the relevant from the irrelevant even in describing his own mental processes. Moreover his intensely active and vivid imagery seems also to have facilitated dissociative processes. As a child, he could “see” the clock fixed at a time which meant he need not get up yet, or he would provide a doppelganger to go to school:

… There he is, he’s getting his coat and cap, putting on his galoshes. Now he’s gone. So everything’s as it should be. I stay home, and “he” goes off. But suddenly my father walks in and says: “It’s so late, and you haven’t left for school yet?”

Luria thinks that S.’s unstable grasp of reality and the vividness of his fantasies had contributed to his passive, drifting tendency. But it seems equally possible that it was the other way round, that with more drive he would have dampened down the imaginings. He told Luria in 1937:

If at eighteen or twenty I’d thought I was ready to marry and a countess or princess had agreed to marry me—even that wouldn’t have impressed me. Perhaps I was destined for something greater…. Whatever I did, whether writing articles, becoming a film star—it was just a temporary thing…. I was passive for the most part, didn’t understand that time was moving on. All the jobs I had were simply work I was doing “in the meantime.” The feeling I had was “I’m only twenty-five, only thirty—I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.”

A sad person, he was the passive vehicle of a stupendous specialized capacity which he could put to no more use than to earn the sort of living available to any entertainer of moderate talent.

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