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Solomon Shereshevsky, the Unforgettable

Alexander Luria
One of the most analyzed memories belonged to a Russian Solomon Shereshevsky, otherwise known as S. He aspired to be a violinist, became a journalist, then a professional mnemonist, and ended his career as a taxi driver in Moscow. According to the famous neuropsychologist Professor Luria, who studied S over a period of thirty years, there were no distinct limits to his memory.

As a journalist, S never took notes during his interviews, but his articles were detailed and accurate. He told his editor that he didn’t need to take notes, because he never forgot anything. His editor sent him to Aleksander Luria at a local university for testing.

Luria presented S with 70-digit matrices, complex scientific formulae, even poems in foreign languages, all of which he could memorize in a matter of minutes. He could also report extensive lists of numbers or letters in reverse order. Not only this, he remembered them years afterwards, as well as the clothes Luria had worn on the day he had first learned them!

Even events from early childhood could be recalled, including things that happened when he was still in his crib. There also appeared to be no limit to his digit span, as opposed to the seven to nine items that most humans can manage.

S’s experience of the world around him was quite different from ours. He was born with a condition known as synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a joining together of sensations that are normally experienced separately. Some synesthetes experience colors when they hear or read words, whilst others may experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in almost any combination. The sensations are automatic and cannot be turned on or off.

In S’s case, he automatically translated the world around him into vivid mental images that lasted for years. He couldn’t help but have a good memory, writes Dominic O’Brien in his book How to Develop a Perfect Memory. “If he was asked to memorize a word, he would not only hear it, but he would also see a color. On some occasions, he would also experience a taste in his mouth and a feeling on his skin. Later on, when he was asked to repeat the word, he has a number of triggers to remind him.”

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He also used images to remember numbers:

‘Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited women; three a gloomy person (why I don’t know); 6 a man with swollen foot; 7 a man with moustache; 8 a very stout woman — a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat women and a man twirling his moustache.’Synesthesia created problems in other areas of his life. The sound of a word would often generate an image quite different from the word’s meaning:

‘One time I went to buy some ice cream… I walked over to the vender and asked her what kind of ice cream she had. “Fruit ice cream,” she said. But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any ice cream after she has answered that way… Another thing: 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 had a phenomenal imagination, writes Dominic O’Brien. “Luria believed that he spent a large part of his life living in the world of his images. As a child, he would visualize the hand on his clock saying 7:30 so he could stay in bed. He could increase his pulse from 70 beats per minute to 100, simply by imagining he was running for a train. In one experiment, he raised the temperature of his left hand and lowered the temperature of the other (both by two degrees) just imagining he had his one hand on the stove while the other was holding a block of ice. He could even get his pupils to contract by imagining bright light!”

Unfortunately, S’s gift was a serious handicap. He was unable to block unwanted memories. Also, he had a terrible memory for faces because he memorized them so exactly. People’s faces change with time, lighting, mood, and expression. S had difficulty recognizing faces because they looked so different to him from the ones he had completely memorized in the past.

‘They’re so changeable. A person’s expression depends on his mood and on the circumstances under which you happen to meet him. People’s faces are constantly changing; it’s the different shades of expression that confuse me and make it so hard to remember faces.’S had trouble understanding abstract concepts or figurative language. If he couldn’t visualize something, he was stumped. His wife had to explain what ‘nothing’ meant. Luria wrote about him:

‘He was not able to read poetry or fiction easily, as each word or phrase would blossom into an intense visualization that might be contradicted by the next one… Shereshevsky’s pathological memory interfered with his ability to hold a regular job, enjoy literature, or even seemingly to think in the abstract without being distracted by sensory association.’S gave up his journalism career and became a professional mnemonist giving regular shows to paying audiences. Despite his success, he never had great satisfaction as a performer and gave it up after a while. He then became a taxi driver in Moscow but his life faded into obscurity afterward. Aside from a possible death date in 1958, there seems to be little else available.

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