Luria's Mnemonist

The Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria published a book called The Mind of a Mnemonist (pronounced NEE-mon-ist) translated into English in 1968. Luria found a man who showed essentially no forgetting in a variety of memory tests. The man grew up in Latvia during World War I. The school system was very strict and emphasized memorization. Due to wartime conditions, the school had no paper or slates to give the children, so there was no alternative to memorization. Luria's mnemonist, who Luria called "S.", developed special memorization abilities.

How might Luria's mnemonist have been influenced by childhood events?

From an early age S. used mental imagery to remember things. As an adult, he was able to memorize long lists of items by taking a mental stroll down a familiar street and imagining the items in various locations along the street. Later, to remember the items, he took a stroll down memory lane and reported all the items in correct order. This is exactly like the method of loci, discussed earlier.

Here is how Luria described his first session with S.

I gave S. a series of words, then numbers, then letters... He would pause for a minute, as though searching for the word, but immediately after would be able to answer my questions and generally made no mistakes.

It was of no consequence to him whether the series I gave him contained meaningful words or nonsense syllables, numbers, or sounds; whether they were presented orally or in writing. All he required was that there be a 3-4 second pause between each element in the series, and he had no difficulty reproducing whatever I gave him.

As the experimenter, I soon found myself in a state verging on utter confusion. An increase in the length of the series led to no noticeable increase in difficulty for S., and I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory had no distinct limits... (p.47)

What is synesthesia, and how did it help S remember things?

Further testing revealed that S. was unusual in another respect. He experienced synesthesia, the translation of information from one sense to another. A person with synesthesia sometimes "hears" colors or "sees" musical tones. Luria's subject received vivid visual images in reaction to speech sounds. He remembered this synesthesia occurring when he was three years old and heard a Hebrew prayer. He did not understand the words, but he saw them "as puffs of steam or splashes." He said to Luria, "Even now I see these puffs or splashes when I hear certain sounds."

Here we have a clue to S's extraordinary memory ability. Words suggested images for him naturally and easily. These images became keys to his memory. Luria noted that S's visual images were not like those of ordinary people. They were "exceptionally vivid and stable" and he was able to "turn away" from them and "return" to them at will, to retrieve information. Therefore, when given a series of items to memorize, S. could easily generate images and distribute them on a mental street or other familiar scene.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey