Re: On Remembering Everything (by LL)

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Thu Feb 29 1996 - 21:20:12 GMT

> From: "Lee liz" <>
> Date: Sun, 18 Feb 1995 21:39:17 GMT
> It is within the capabilities of almost everyone, including those
> with learning difficulties, to achieve "phenomenal mental prowess"
> (Searleman and Herrmann, 1994), providing they are motivated enough
> to spend enormous amounts of time practising or studying a
> particular subject in detail. It has been suggested that the
> unusual cases of idiot savants are no more than people with low
> intelligence wishing to excel at something and therefore being
> motivated to gain expertise by constant practice (Ericsson and
> Faivre, quoted in Searleman and Herrmann).

This is still just a hypothesis; it is possible that there is also
variation in people's ability to do such things.

> "Elizabeth" has the ability to remember a picture
> consisting solely of dots (1 million of them!!), and then project
> this onto a second picture of dots to reveal an image, this could be
> after a time lapse of four hours and is an ability referred to as
> eidetic imagery.

But there was only 1 in a million Elizabeths! The ability to fuse two
sets of random dots is the most exacting test of eidetic imagery, and
Elizabeth (Haber, the wife of the author of the article, Ralph Haber!)
may be the only one who has it!

> Luria discovered that any
> failure to recall material was a failure of perception rather than
> memory, in that S had inadvertently "placed" an item against a
> similar coloured background and it had therefore not stood out for
> recognition and had not been retrieved.

Normal people also have such failures of memory that are actually
failures of perception. And Dennett & Kinsbourne
discuss it as "Orwellian" vs. "Stalinesque" memory.

> Each word for S was represented by an image,
> often with it's associated colour, sound or taste, he could not
> dissociate the word as it was written, with the image he had of it.
> This meant each word could have only one meaning, and that meaning
> was associated with a specific range of other sensory perceptions,
> he had great difficulty with words which had several meanings (e.g.
> to wear a coat and to wear away), and with the idea that more than
> one word can be used to describe the same object (e.g. baby,
> infant).

Yes, associating one thing with many different names is a problem,
because you have to abstract which assocociation to select any given
time. Even harder is associating one name with many different things
(except if it is just a list of things) because you have to abtsract
what the things with the same name have in common, and forget or ignore
what they don't have in common.

> Searleman and Herrmann (1994) have described how mnemonists can be
> "created" by carefully planned practice schedules, the difference
> between these and the natural mnemonists like S is the ability to
> forget. Most people see how to remember as being difficult, how to
> forget comes without trying, S had the opposite problem, once he had
> memorised something, he could not forget it. There are many things
> that one would rather forget because of their painful, embarrassing
> or disturbing nature, if everything were remembered then this would
> not be possible. From a practical point of view, remembering every
> detail of ones' life in the way Borges' Funes remembered would
> render one unable to function normally. Funes likened his memory to
> a "garbage heap", whether he liked it or not he remembered all, the
> trivial and the important indistinguishably.

It's not just unpleasant memories and the size of the garbage heap. It's
that, logically speaking, if you could not selectively forget anything,
then everything would be infinitely unique, and you could not think or
speak at all, you would just be lost in a perpetual flux of unique
instants of experience.

> The biggest disadvantage in remembering everything is the inability to
> generalise, summarise and use abstracts, Luria documents S's failure to
> recognise obvious patterns within number or word series he was given,
> for instance the table 2345 3456 4567 5678 would be duly memorised
> and be available for recall in any given direction, but the pattern not
> recognised, each number remembered in it's own right. In performing
> arithmetic problems, the solution would be worked out using visual
> images of the operations performed, rather than the abstract symbols
> usually employed. Borges said of his character Funes "I suspect,
> however, that he was not very capable of thought.", Luria said much the
> same of S, seeing him trapped in a stage of cognitive development from
> which he was unable to ascend to a higher level of understanding.
> Concepts such as infinity, eternity and nothing were particularly
> difficult for S because they could not be visualised, S told Luria "I
> can only understand what I can visualise."

This is the core of it: No abstraction is possible without forgetting.
And not cognition or language (naming) is possible without abstraction.

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