The Mind of a Mnemonist

From: Smith, Wendy (
Date: Mon Nov 06 1995 - 09:07:42 GMT

S was first examined when his boss, an editor, was amazed that S needed
to make no notes to aid his memory about his days assignments. S was
bewildered - didn't everyone have this ability?

Investigations couldn't establish limits to S's recall. Lists of 70
numbers could be recalled even sisteen years later. The lists could be
of numbers, words, even nonsense syllables. What a gift! Or was

How did S remember so much, so clearly? Two features of his memory are
apparent. First, synesthesia was present to a more than normal extent.
S would experience a words with all his senses: sounds would have a
colour; a taste; a feel. For example, a bell ringing was a "rolling,
small, round object"; "rough like a rope"; "tasted of salt water";
"white". One day he went to buy ice-cream, and the vendor told him what
flavours she had. But her words sounded like "black cinders" so he
couldn't eat the ice-cream.

The second feature was his remarkable visual imagery. When he heard a
word or number, or whatever, he would conjure up a whole story. He did
this with a meaningless maths formula. The story was somewhat rambling
and pointless, but it enabled him to remember the formula, and recall
it 15 years later (NB - the story may have helped him remember the
formula, but how did he remember the story? Shades of homunculi here?)

He relied strongly upon the method of loci - mentally putting objects
in places, and then retracing his steps to recall them. His imagery was
so strong that sometimes imagination and reality had no firm
boundaries. He passed his life waiting for "something" to happen.

Also, his imagery could interfere with reality in a more prosaic way.
Sometimes the sounds of the word led to a visual image which was in
stark contrast to the meaning. For example, the Russian word svinya
conjured up elegance and fineness for him; and yet meant a pig. S.
often found this difference confusing. Sometimes a cough or other noise
could invade and leave a little "cloud" to blur his memory.

Also, he didn't appear to be taking in the meaning. He could be given a
list of words, and recite them forwards, backwards, or give words
before or after a probe word. However, on one occasion he was given a
list with the names of birds embedded in it. He was unable to extract
the names of the birds from the list, but had to work his way
painstakingly through the whole list to find them.

He was also given the following list:

        1 2 3 4
        2 3 4 5
        3 4 5 6 etc

He noticed no order in these numbers, and proceeded to memorise them as
usual. He could have memorised Luria's book, word for word, in the time
it took me to read it; but he would have been totally incapable of
summarising it, as I am here.

Poetry bewildered him, he found it hard to move from the figurative to
abstract thinking. This could help him solve some problems - he didn't
get bogged down in verbal manipulations - but in others he seemed
almost child-like in his grasp of the ideas. If he couldn't "see" it,
he didn't understand it.

So, what questions were left at the end?

First was the nature of his experiences - his strong synesthesia. How
well does this fit in with the ideas of rehearsal or echoes?

Second was his strong visual imagery, and how it related to his
reasoning and memory. Language appeared to hinder him - how does it
help most people?

Third was whether his memory was an advantage or disadvantage. Does it
help to retain everything in total, but with little meaning? And how
does "normal" memory extract the important stuff, and lose the waste?
And is it related to either the experience or the imagery?

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