The vast memory of Solomon Shereshevsky

7 Dec

Yesterday, I linked to a video of Oliver Sacks discussing his communication with the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria. It seems that it would be appropriate to follow up here with some discussion of Luria’s  study of Solomon Shereshevsky, a man, in Luria’s words, with “a vast memory.”

Luria

A. R. Luria

Shereshevsky grew up in a small Russian Jewish community. The earliest indication that there was something different about Shereshevsky was his experience of synesthesia, a neurological condition where a person experiences automatic associations between sensory modalities. For, example, someone with synesthesia might experience strong color associations with certain sounds. Shereshevsky told Luria that as a child of two or three he experienced the words of a Hebrew prayer as “puffs of steam or splashes.” Even as an adult certain sounds would produce those same images.

At an early age Shereshevsky showed musical aptitude, but an ear disease impaired his hearing and he had to abandon his musical ambitions. He tried to work as a newspaper reporter. His editor noticed that Shereshevsky never took notes when he gave out the days assignments. Since the assignments were often complicated, the editor chastised Shereshevsky for inattention. Shereshevsky startled his editor by repeating back the day’s assignment verbatim. The editor sent Shereshevsky to Luria’s laboratory to have his memory tested.

One of the first things to strike Luria was that Shereshevsky “wasn’t aware of any peculiarities in himself and couldn’t conceive of the idea that his memory differed in some way from other people’s”.

Luria started testing Shereshevsky’s memory. His first instinct was to find the limits of Shereshevsky ability. Luria read of lists of numbers and words. But, no matter how long the list Shereshevsky succeeded in repeating it back. This was startling because the classic research on memory by Ebbinghaus  had found that the ability to recall a list declines as the list grows longer. Luria (1968) came to the conclusion that Shereshevsky’s memory “had no distinct limits.”  According to Luria “all he required was that there be a three-to-four second pause between each element in the series, and he had no difficulty responding whatever I gave him.”  It made no difference if lists were of words, numbers, sounds, or nonsense syllables, Shereshevsky remembered them all. Indeed, they seemed to become a part of his long term memory; Luria found that Shereshevsky could recall the lists when retested fifteen years later.

And yet, while Shereshevsky might seem the perfect case of a naturally superior memory, Luria discovered that he employed a technique very much like the method of loci found in most memory improvement books. In the method of loci, one uses a series of well remembered locations usually arranged in a journey, as hooks to attach new information. According to Luria, when Shereshevsky

“read through a long series of words, each word would require a graphic image. And since the series was fairly long, he had to find some way of distinguishing these images of his in a mental row of sequences. Most often (and this habit persisted throughout his life), he would ‘distribute’ them along some roadway or street he visualized in his mind.”

Shereshevsky appears to have self discovered the method of loci. How are we to interpret the fact that Shereshevsky used a memory technique? Was his skill the result of training, natural ability, or some combination of both?

One way we might answer this question is to see if ordinary people could be trained to duplicate impressive feats of memory. For example, Shereshevsky was able to memorize a large matrix numbers of 50 numbers arranged in 12 rows of four digits and one row of two digits. This seems a task beyond the reach of most people.

Yet, Kenneth Higbee , a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, was able to train ordinary college students to duplicate Shereshevsky feat using a mnemonic system called the phonetic alphabet to learn the same matrix. The students in Higbee’s study were able to learn the matrix in 3 minutes; the same time it took Shereshevsky.

It still remains possible, however, that Shereshevsky had some power beyond that of technique. For one thing, while Higbee’s students were able to duplicate Shereshevsky’s in immediately recalling the list, his complete performance was still more impressive. Shereshevsky was also able to recall the list in reverse order and the numbers in individual columns. Indeed, he could recite the numbers in zig zag diagonals through the chart.

It certainly seems likely that with additional practice the students would have obtained Shereshevsky like levels of performance. However, one wonders if they would, as Shereshevsky could, recall the list years later.

Our best explanation for Shereshevsky may be some combination of innate skill and technique. It seems possible that Shereshevsky’s synesthesia gave him superior powers of mental imaging that he harnessed to an age old memory technique. Research has shown that synesthesia is a real phenomenon. For example, some people with synesthesia see numbers as having specific colors. The physician and neuroscientist V.R. Ramachandran  recruited two people who saw the number 5 as green and the number 2 as red. He created a computerized test that presented a group of 2s arranged in a geometric shape embedded in a random display of 5s. The two people with synesthesia were able to immediately discern the shape formed by the 2s. People with out synesthesia took as long as 20 seconds to find the shape.

Synesthesia is involuntary, develops early in life, and seems to be genetic in origin. Thus, Shereshevsky’s skill may have involved both natural ability and technique. Later Shereshevsky became a professional memory performer and learned to use standard mnemonic techniques.

One peculiarity of Shereshevsky was that, while his synesthesia gave him great powers of visualization, he had difficulty noticing the meaningful structure of the material he memorized. Luria (1968) once gave him a long series of numbers to memorize.

1 2 3 4

2 3 4 5

3 4 5 6

4 5 6 7

etc. 

Luria reports that it took Shereshevsky an “intense effort” and that he was “unaware that the numbers in the series progressed in a simple logical order.”

Details for this post are drawn mostly from Luria’s book  The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory.

7 Responses to “The vast memory of Solomon Shereshevsky”

  1. Tomas December 8, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    I am deeply skeptical of Luria’s explanation of the abilities of Shereshevsky in “Mind of a mnemonist”, and I think this book gets a lot less critical scrutiny than it deserves.

    S was apparently a memory performer, who put on shows for the public. Such memory shows have a long history, often as part of magic and conjoring acts, and would typically combine the use of standard memory training techniques (for example, using the method of loci) with magic tricks and misdirection. I can see nothing in Luria’s account to suggest that this does not account for S’s performance.

    Luria’s account does not suggest that Luria has any significant knowledge of memory systems or what can be achieved of them. He doesn’t discuss the method of loci or similar methods, and does not discuss the amount and content of any training that S might have had. This suggests that Luria lacks the basic background knowledge and expertise to evaluate S.

    You suggest that “S appears to have self discovered the method of loci”. I don’t think there is evidence for this; Luria certainly doesn’t give any. The method of loci isn’t some secret; it’s been well known for hundreds of years and described in many popular books, including books published in S’s time. Given that S’s parents worked in a bookshop, S would have had easy access to such material.

    Furthermore there are no convincing similar case studies that I am aware of, and no other studies on S from other scientists or layman to back up what Luria says.

    In most fields of knowledge, a case study from a scientist who clearly lacks basic background knowledge, and which has not been replicated, would simply be rejected and forgotten about. In psychology, this case study is instead elevated to the status of a “classic” and discussed uncritically in many textbooks and papers. This appears to me not to be due the quality of Luria’s analysis. Instead, Luria is elevated to “rock star” status (exemplified by Oliver Sacks admiration in the video you posted), and Luria’s questionable interpretation of his case study goes unchallenged.

    • jecgenovese December 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. A couple points, Luria’s reputation depends much more on his work on cortical function than it does on this case study. You are certainly correct that case studies have inherent limitations, and some degree of skepticism is always in order. I would, however, point to the Thomspon, Cowan, and Freeman study of Rajan Mahadevan which suggests that Mahadevan’s performances involved both talent and technique.I suspect the same is true of S.

      • Tomas December 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

        Thanks for your reply. My comments are as follows:

        1) I agree that Luria’s reputation (quite deservedly) stems from this other work rather than this case study. Which is precisely the point – he does not have expertise in memory training, which is he would have needed to make sense of this case study; being an expert in other fields is not relevant. I think this book has got undeserved attention through having been written by him rather than a less famous author.

        2) Thompson, Cowan and Freeman’s study of Rajan is examined in Chase, Delaney, Weaver and Mahadevan’s 2004 paper “Uncovering the structure of a memorist’s superior ‘‘basic’’ memory capacity”, which studied Rajan’s memory and concluded that it could be explained through an alternative hypothesis based on practice rather than talent. I therefore don’t think Rajan is a convincing case study for the importance of talent, and don’t think it backs up the Shereshevskiy case – Rajan’s descriptions of what he does are nothing like S’s.

        I think the evidence for the importance of talent rather than practice to explain memory performances is generally very weak, and in the case of S there is no convincing evidence for the importance of talent at all. Training, showmanship, and Luria’s gullibility provide a more straightforward explanation.

  2. Miguel Ángel Romero Munguía November 1, 2016 at 11:17 pm #

    I suggest that cognitive difficulties of Shereshevsky were not due to his synesthesia or his astounding memory. I proposed that he was suffering from a mnesic imbalance present in an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    http://www.intechopen.com/books/recent-advances-in-autism-spectrum-disorders-volume-i/mnesic-imbalance-or-hyperthymestic-syndrome-as-cause-of-autism-symptoms-in-shereshevskii

  3. Syed Ahmad Tajuddin January 31, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

    Dear sir/madam
    I nee a photo/picture of Solomon Shereshevsky the Russian journalist before he died in 1958, thank you.
    Email: tajuddin2000@hotmail.com

    • jecgenovese February 2, 2018 at 11:12 am #

      I am sorry I am unable to locate a photo that I can verify as authentic.

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  1. Solomon Shereshevsky – memorie superioară sau tehnică de memorare? | Extra - October 19, 2017

    […] The vast memory of Solomon Shereshevsky […]

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