Summary: Extraordinary Memorists

Individuals with extraordinary memory abilities have been documented for over a hundred years. Often they are called mnemonists but Neisser suggests that a better term is memorists because these people seldom use formal mnemonic systems.

One memorist who did use a traditional mnemonic system was Luria's subject, known as "S." He used the method of loci, visualizing familiar streets and other locations to memorize lists of items. S. may have been extraordinary in another way. He apparently experienced synesthesia, the stimulation of visual images by sounds. Words led to visual images he could remember using the method of loci. Daniel Tammet is a savant from England who has synesthetic and memory abilities similar to S.

Eidetic imagery is the technical term for so-called photographic memory. Only one case has been thoroughly documented: a young teacher at Harvard named Elizabeth. She passed a computer-generated test that could not be faked, and she showed an amazing ability to recall or project visual images from imagination, while never mistaking them for real perceptions. Other people with excellent visual memory have been located, but true eidetikers like Elizabeth are apparently very rare.

Professor Aitken, an extraordinary memorist described by Hunter, memorized things simply by finding them interesting. He described a "relaxed, yet possessed" state of mind in which he could "let the properties of the material reveal themselves."

What all the extraordinary memorists seem to have in common is (1) a need to find things interesting, (2) the use of imagery, and (3) a trancelike state of absorption, plus an ability to (4) let the mind work without distraction, so they could (5) apprehend the relationships between details in the material they were memorizing.


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