On Remembering Everything (by DC)

From: DONNA CRUMLEY (DHC195@psy.soton.ac.uk)
Date: Sat Feb 18 1995 - 20:37:26 GMT

What are the advantages and disadvantages of remembering everything?

Learning, the acquisition of new knowledge, and memory, the
retention of that knowledge are represented at different
levels of the nervous system. (Beatty - Principles of
Behavioural Neuroscience). There are many different types of
learning and memory, this essay is concerned with those
memories which are limitless, and how this infinite
retrieval of knowledge can be beneficial to the individual
and how it can also be a hindrance for the individual.

The concept of a limitless memory is not normal for everyone
in society, the majority of people often find it difficult
to recall events that happened years ago. Studies have even
shown that people routinely fail to remember significant
life events just a year after they have occurred. One study
consisted of interviews of 590 people who had been in injury
producing road accidents during the previous year.
Approximately 14% did not remember the accident a year
later. (U.S. Government Studies, Cited in Loftus 1982).
Forgetting, in this case goes hand in hand with memory. Why
did these people forget life events which only happened in
the previous year? One idea is that as time passes the
traces left by outside events in the nervous system grow
fainter until they can no longer be reactivated. In other
words, we forget with the passage of time. E.L. Thorndike
(1932) suggested that the best way to understand learning
and memory was the law of exercise: When actions are
repeatedly produced or events repeatedly experienced, they
become stronger - better learned, more rapidly produced.
When actions or events fall into disuse and are no longer
practised, they become weaker and finally 'lost' from
memory. (Introducing Psychology. An Experimental Approach
D.S. Wright, A. Taylor).

Thorndike's theory doesn't account for infinite memories, or
even individuals who suffer from complete memory loss i.e.
amnesia. Amnesia often occurs as a consequence of brain
damage, some people suffer a total loss of memory, others
suffer from a loss of long term memory (i.e. memory of the
past. Everything that is remembered and everything that
could possibly be remembered must be stored in long term
memory) and their short term memory, which stores a limited
amount of information for a short period of time is normal.

Amnesia is, of course disadvantageous for individuals,
especially if they can not remember family and friends. A
person's whole lifestyle would be completely changed if they
became amnesiac. As a result of observing that amnesia is a
severe disadvantage, one might regard being able to remember
everything as uniquely beneficial. Of course being able to
remember everything does have its advantages, but it also
has its disadvantages. As Luria found in his study of S, a
man who could remember all his previous life events, S also
had an amazing ability to recall lists of totally unrelated
words even 16 years after he first saw or heard them. The
disadvantages of S's ability probably outweigh the
advantages, but it is important to have a balance so I will
begin with the advantages of his infinite retrieval of
things from the past.

The fact that S could remember everything that he ever heard
said, or saw done meant that he had no need to write
everything down. The job he had at the time of his first
visit to Luria was a reporter. His memory was so concise
that he had no need to record events, he simply recalled
them from his memory. He was also able to remember right
back to his childhood and could give vivid accounts of
events from a very young age:
    " I was very young then . . . not even a year old
perhaps . . . what comes to mind most clearly is the
furniture in the room".
He claimed to be able to feel, taste and see the exact
furniture, the window and his mother in the room. This is
perhaps something which we would all like to be able to do,
but cannot. S also had an amazing ability to remember places
and directions, he claimed that he could 'taste fences',
therefore he would remember the fence the next time he
walked past it because of its amazing taste.
S could also recall lengthy mathematical equations, he did
this by having an image in his head of certain people and
objects. For example, if he wanted to remember:
the image in his head would be something like:
" Neiman (N) came out and jabbed the ground with his cane
Perhaps one of the most remarkable advantages for S of
remembering everything was his alleged ability to control
his bodily behaviour. He could alter his pulse rate simply
by willing it to happen:
     "If I want something to happen, I simply picture it in
my mind. I don't have to exert any effort to accomplish it,
it just happens."
To make his pulse rate faster S simply saw himself running
after a train. He Also claimed that he could dull pain by
using a similar method. Luria seemed to be a bit sceptical
about S's ability to do this, he discussed the dividing line
between imagination and reality. How many times were there
things that were in fact imaginary but became reality to S?
All of this has to do with the way S remembered things, It
wasn't simply a process of recollection, it was a much more
complicated procedure. This is where Luria started to
discover disadvantages in S's amazing ability.

When presented with noise at certain levels S was able to
see in his mind strips of colour, it was the same case with
touch and taste. There were no distinct lines separating
vision from hearing, or hearing from a sense of touch or
      "Usually I experience a words taste and weight, and I
don't have to make an effort to remember it - the word seems
to recall itself . . . "
This is called synesthesia - when sights and sounds,
feelings and smells are all intertwined. S had both a very
strong concrete, sensory memory and these cross sensory
synesthesias. It is not sure whether this is a cause or an
effect of S's memory. When S heard a word he was familiar
with, he would see an image representing this word. e.g.
     "When I hear the word green a flower pot appears."
It became a problem for S when he tried to read a long
series of words. He would put a street in his mind and
distribute the images the words portrayed in a mental row or
sequence, distributing his images at houses, gates and shop
windows. This is what Luria called a 'mental walk'. This
type of recollection proved to be a problem for S because if
an image was read to him too quickly one image would overlap
with another in his mind. Images would begin to crowd in on
one another and become contorted. This was because his
images were so vividly remembered that they don't cancel one
another out and so they interfere.

S often had omissions when recalling lists he had seen or
which were recited to him. This turned out to be a defect,
not in memory but in perception and cognition.
     "I put the image of a pencil near a fence . . . the
one down the street you know. But what happened was that the
image fused with that of the fence and I walked right past
it without noticing it."

So, the method he used for recalling things often led to the
exclusion of certain things from the past. Yet this
technique of converting a series of words into a series of
graphic images explains why S could so readily reproduce a
series from start to finish or in reverse order. Another
disadvantage S had with his ability to remember everything
was that he couldn't understand poetry and scientific
writing. He said that he can:
     "Only understand what I can visualise . . . in order
for me to grasp the meaning of something I have to see it."
This problem of not being able to understand science is also
to do with his defect in cognition. His infinitely faithful
memory for perceptual detail made him miss patterns and
regularities across different events: Each was so well
remembered that S had problems abstracting regularities and
ignoring relevant details. Therefore science proved to be a
problem because it is mostly about abstracting regularities
and ignoring irrelevant details.

Everyday life events also proved to be a problem for S. He
explains how one time he had to go to court, and before the
actual event he had done it in his imagination. In his mind,
he had an image of what would happen. Because this image was
different to what happened in reality, he was unable to do
what he was supposed to be doing. S also had other problems
due to his synesthesia. For example
     "If I read when I eat, I have a hard time understanding
what I am reading. The taste of the food drowns out the
sense . . . "
S also had a similar problem with phone numbers, he had to
actually taste a number on the tip of his tongue before he
could remember it. Another problem associated with
S's ability to remember everything is that he had a ' poor
memory' for faces; because he saw faces as changing patterns
of light and shade he often got confused about who the face
belonged to.

S's personality was effected by his ability to remember
everything. When he was young, he was a dreamer which meant
he had problems at school: he had to be alert to keep to a
     " . . . Say you ask me about a horse. There is also
itAEs colour and taste to consider . . . I have to deal not
only with the horse but with its taste . . . the yard it is
penned in . . . ."
Because S had to deal with so much in his mind before
actually recalling something he had difficulty in keeping
jobs. He wasn't able to keep alert enough the whole time to
understand what all the colours, feelings, smells, sounds
and tastes meant. S's ability to remember everything and the
way in which he remembered everything therefore caused a lot
of problems in his everyday life. It has to be said that he
didn't even realise that he had any memory peculiarities in
himself and couldn't conceive of the idea that his memory
differed in some way from other peoples.

The ability to remember everything therefore has
considerable advantages and disadvantages. The extraordinary
concept of memory has led to many studies such as Luria's,
however one fictional story which clearly illustrates
possible advantages and disadvantages of remembering
everything is 'Funes the memorious'. Funes describes his
memory as a garbage heap. He said that:
     "I alone have more memories than all mankind has
probably had since the world has been the world . . . my
dreams are like you peoples waking hours."
He was able to compare the forms of the southern clouds at
dawn on 30th April 1882, each of his visual images were
linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations etc. Funes
could fully and intuitively grasp the stormy mane of a pony
in the same way that we could a circle. Remembering in this
way is very beneficial since if cameras are not available an
image could be drawn later for others to see. Funes also had
a wonderful capacity for remembering different languages, he
could recall something in a foreign language which he had
only seen once - this would be very useful in today's
multilingual society!

As with S, Funes also had problems as a result of
remembering everything. He created a new form of numbering
system: he replaced numbers such as 7014 with things such as
'the rail road'. He couldn't comprehend that these expansive
incoherent terms were the precise opposite to a system of
numbers. It has to be said therefore that Funes was almost
incapable of ideas of a general platonic sort. This of
course caused problems in his everyday understanding of
things. He also thought it was nonsense for a dog to have
the same name no matter what position it was in. He thought
that the dog's name should change according to how it was
sitting and what direction it was seen from. Funes also had
a great imagination, he was able to imagine himself at the
bottom of a river. A good skill to have if you are an
author perhaps, but totally useless for a man who was not
very capable of thought.

Looking at two perspectives on remembering everything, it if
fair to say that the ability to do so has both advantages
and disadvantages for the individual. It is very hard for us
to imagine how their lives must be, it is particularly
difficult for us to accept that they cannot comprehend that
they are any different from you or I and that what they
experience is perfectly normal for them.


Funes the Memorious - Cited in 'Labyrinths' - Translated by
The Mind of a Mnemonist - Luria
Principles of Behavioural Neuroscience - 1995 - Beatty, J.
Memory, Phenomena, Experiment and Theory
                                     - 1993 - Parkin, A.J.
Memory: Interdisciplinary Approaches
                               - 1988 - Soloman P.R. et al
Introducing Psychology An Experimental Approach
                            - 1975 - Wright D.S., Taylor A.


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