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Monday, October 5, 2009

So Do You Want a Perfect Memory?

 Soloman Shereshevskii -- Mnemonist

The average person only uses approximately 10% of his or her total brain power. But what about those not-so-average folk that can access the other 90%? Imagine having a memory so incredibly vivid that late in life you can still clearly recall your mother’s face coming into focus as she bent over your crib. What would it be like to remember every event of your babyhood and school years? An impossible scenario?

It takes us far longer to store data, it's easy for us to forget things we've learned, and it's sometimes hard to dislodge outdated information. Worse, our memories are vulnerable to contamination and distortion. Lawyers can readily fool us with suggestive questions; false memories can easily be implanted.

Of course, most adults have forgotten the majority of their childhood -- this means they can’t remember what it was like to feel so helpless, to depend upon someone else to do everything for them, and to have such passionate feelings about events and people. But, a man named Solomon Shereshevskii clearly remembered not only the events from his infancy, but also his feelings in response to what was happening then.

The condition is known as Superior Autobiographical Memory Syndrome or Hyperthymesis (hyper, meaning "excessive"; thymesis, meaning "remembering") and is characterized by an ability to recollect every event from one's past, as if it had just happened. Incredible as it sounds, cases have been confirmed.

Soloman Shereshevskii (1886 - 1958) was a Russian journalist and mnemonist simply known as "S." He became famous after an anecdotal event in which he was told off for not taking any notes while attending a speech while working as a newspaper journalist in Moscow in 1905. His editor noticed that Solomon never took any notes when at meetings planning the day’s work. This had irritated the editor enough for him to eventually confront Solomon and criticise him for not doing his job properly. (Tony Crisp, To the astonishment of everyone there (and to his own also, due to his belief that everybody had such an ability to recall), he could recall the speech perfectly, word by word.

The subject of many behavioral studies, most of them carried by the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, over a thirty year time span, Shereshevskii became a famous curiosity. He often memorized complex mathematical formulae, huge matrices and even poems in foreign languages and did so in a matter of minutes. Yet, despite his astounding memory performances, Shereshevskii scored absolutely average in intelligence tests.

Luria diagnosed Shereshevskii as having an extremely strong version of synaesthesia, fivefold synaesthesia, in which the stimulation of one of his senses produces a reaction in every other. For example, if Shereshevskii heard a musical tone played he would immediately see a colour, touch would trigger a taste sensation and so on for each of the senses. With the images his synaesthesia produced, he could apply well-known mnemonic techniques.

For example, when “S” was given a tone with a pitch of 2000 cycles per second he commented - “It looks something like fireworks with a pink-red hue. The strip of colour feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste - rather like that of a briny pickle. You could hurt your hand on it.” (, March 19 2009)

Tony Crisp reports on that the the tests proved that Solomon’s ability to remember was almost boundless. Not only did there seem to be no limit to what he could recall, but each of his memories was indelible. It was never wiped out. So fifteen years later when Luria looked at his records of the lists of numbers he had used in the tests, and asked Solomon if he could repeat them without hearing them again, Solomon remembered without any hesitation. As usual, he could repeat them forward or backward.

Casey's Diary

Other Rare Cases

Patricia Casey (, October 06 2008) says Solomon Shereshevskii's case is rare, that only a few such cases have been described. One such person, Jill Price, a 43-year-old from the United States has written (with Bart David) her story in 2008, The Woman Who Can't Forget. Price can remember everything about her life since her 20th year, and has exceptional memory for any time before that.

Jerry Adler of Newsweek (May 19 2008) says that Price has hyperthymestic syndrome, but hers is of a very particular kind. Price has no special aptitude for memorizing lists of words or numbers, or for facts or stories or languages. She was an average student. What Price does remember—obsessively, uncontrollably and with remarkable accuracy—is stuff that happened to her.

Price can rattle off, without hesitation, what she saw and heard on almost any given date. She remembers many early childhood experiences and most of the days between the ages of 9 and 15. After that, there are virtually no gaps in her memory. "Starting on Feb. 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday,"reports Jonah Lehrer (, December 2 2008) Her memories are like scenes from home movies, constantly playing in her head, backward and forward, through the years; not only does she make no effort to call her memories to mind, she cannot stop them.

Every time people think about something, and especially how it connects to something else, we get better at remembering it—a phenomenon that psychologists call elaborative encoding. "Price has spent her whole life ruminating on the past, constructing timelines and lists, and contemplating the connections between one February 19 and the next. Dates and memories are her constant companions, and as a result she's really good at remembering her past. End of story," reports Gary Marcus (Wired Magazine, March 23 2009)

Another person with the same syndrome and ability is Brad Williams, dubbed the human Google, a news anchor with a Wisconsin radio station. Brad can't really describe how his brain does what it does, any more than a person could describe how he knows what color something is or how something tastes. Brad doesn't seem bothered by this constant recollection. It's simply how his memory has always functioned and it surprises him that the rest of people's minds don't work the same way.
And now, around 200 others have come forward since this phenomenon was publicised.

The Down Side of Incredible Memory

These incredible memories produced incredible feats of mind. Still, an unhappy side to this condition does exist. Many believe their talent is no gift, but a curse.This is really rather easily understood.

When most people suffer some trauma, time usually heals the wounds, partly because their brains forget details about the event, and so their emotions are becalmed. But, Super Memory subjects recall everything, and this forgetfulness cannot happen. In fact, every detail is recollected as if it is happening afresh, and this reoccurs for every single traumatic event of one's life: every gaffe, heartbreak, pain, embarrassment and loss.

The emotional toll on the subject is devastating. Jill Prices says, "It's like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there's no stop button." (Johan Lehrer,, December 2 2008)
Solomon Shereshevskii tried out several different methods of making his memories less invasive. ( One method was to write down all the things that he no longer wanted to remember and then burn up the paper he'd written them on. Another was to imagine  covering up all the memories he didn't want with a blank canvas in his mind. He was eventually able to will some of his memory away, but not much. Reportedly, in his late years, he realized he could forget facts with just a conscious desire to remove them from his memory, although this isn't well verified.

Crisp also reports another problem Solomon faced was that he often found it difficult to recognize people he had know for some time, or recognize whose voice it was on the telephone. Solomon’s awareness of detail was so acute that slight changes in persons' faces or voices made it difficult for him to recognize them: differences most people don't even notice.

So, if you wish you had photographic memory or Superior Autobiographical Memory Syndrome, you may wish to think twice. The loss of control and inability to forget could be terrible qualities of the condition. Perhaps, we should be thankful for the potential of the mentality we have been given. Every push past 10% brain usage is sure to enlighten us and help us with intellect.

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