The man who could not forget

    We have all probably wished for better powers of recall at certain points in our lives. When we couldn’t remember our credit card pin code at the checkout or when some important telephone number stubbornly evaded us, most of us have probably thought the world would be a better place if we didn’t have to struggle to remember information. For this reason it is hard to imagine someone with a completely opposite problem: not being able to forget anything.

    The most famous case of inescapable memory was Solomon V. Shereshevskii. He was a journalist of Jewish descent, living in Moscow at the beginning of the 20th century. The first person to notice Shereshevskii’s unusual abilities was the editor of the newspaper he worked for. The editor never saw him jot anything down at the daily board meetings, despite the fact that the journalists were given very precise instructions on, for example, where and when a meeting would take place. That’s why the editor was convinced at first that Shereshevskii was an unreliable employee, but when the young man recited perfectly all the information he been given in the last hour, the editor realized he had discovered a very special talent.

    Because Shereshevskii himself didn’t realize his memory was so much better than everyone else’s, the editor arranged for him to meet with the young, and soon to be very famous Russian neurologist, Alexander R. Luria. After their first meeting, Luria was fascinated by the young journalist’s unusual disorder and he continued to see Shereshevskii regularly over the next thirty years, exchanging letters and meticulously noting his curious troubles and abilities.

    The disillusioned Tatars

    Luria was the disciple of the famous Lev Vygotsky, the founder of developmental psychology, who died prematurely in 1934 from a fatal attack of tuberculosis. Vygotsky studied many subjects: one of his pursuits involved linguistic and cultural influences on child development and children’s perceptions of the world. To scientifically prove his hypotheses, he sent Luria to the far east of Russia to study illiterate Tatars’ sense of optical illusions. A typical test set involved comparing simple drawings of patterns, one of which seems larger than the other, while both are in fact the same size.

    Luria was so excited about the results that he couldn’t bear the long trans-Siberian train ride home without telegraphing Vygotsky in advance, reporting: “Tatars have no illusions.” This resulted in his immediate arrest. In those Stalinist times, sending out telegrams referring to the alleged “collective illusions” could cost you your life. Luria later exchanged developmental psychology for neurology and worked as an army brain surgeon.

    Unlimited memory capacity

    In addition to his scientific papers, Luria wrote an interesting book in 1965, intended for a wider circle of readers, in which he described his sessions with the patient who couldn’t forget. He wrote about his decades of attempting to see the world through Shereshevskii’s eyes. The English translation of his book, entitled The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, was published in 1968 by Harvard University Press.

    The book begins with Luria remembering the first experiments he used to test the memory capacity of “S.”, as he refers to Shereshevskii. These involved him reading aloud long numeric sequences which S. would memorize and repeat, regardless of their length. S. was even able to recite the sequences in reverse order.

    Luria wanted to find as many measurements as possible of the patient’s unusual ability, yet became increasingly frustrated at being unable to assess the full extent of S.’s memory. S.’s power of recall namely extended beyond recently registered sequences: he was able to remember the numbers Luria had given him a week, a month or even years before.

    Luria states in his book that S. was able to remember a test after as many as fifteen years: “During these test sessions S. would sit with his eyes closed, pause, then comment: ‘Yes, yes … This was a series you gave me once when we were in your apartment … You were sitting at the table and I in the rocking chair … You were wearing a gray suit and you looked at me like this … Now, then, I can see you saying …’ And with that he would reel off the series precisely as I had given it to him at the earlier session.”

    The downsides of perfect memory

    Since Luria couldn’t measure the limits of his patient’s memory, he focused on S.’s other problems, especially on his very unique perception of the world. S. suffered from a heavy case of synaesthesia, or the merging of sensory impressions. Stimuli in one of his senses activated all his other senses, which often led to unpleasant sensations. After meeting Lev Vygotsky for instance, he declared his voice to be “crumbly and yellow”.

    Upon entering a restaurant, a random word on the menu could cause such a mixture of tastes and smells that it made him lose his appetite. Neither could he eat and read the paper at the same time. The actual taste of food merged with the taste triggered by the words and made him lose track of what he was reading.

    When he and Luria were leaving the institute one day, Luria asked him if he could remember the way. Apparently he forgot who he was dealing with. “Come, now,” S. said. “How could I possibly forget? After all, here’s this fence. It has such a salty taste and feels so rough; furthermore, it has such a sharp, piercing sound…”

    Synaesthesia may seem like something that might bring great pleasure; when reading a good poem, for example, each word should trigger a particular smell, taste, colour or sound in the reader. But it doesn’t work out that way. Luria observed that S. didn’t have much appreciation for the poems of Pushkin and Pasternak. He could hardly experience metaphors, with synaesthesia intervening with the actual words and thus hindering any impressions he could derive from their meaning.

    Learning to forget

    Interestingly, all the potential mistakes in his memory were always mere faults of perception. Because his memory was based on visual imagery, transforming numbers into pictures, he might misplace one of them in a dark corner of his mind when he looked over certain images. “The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a white wall and it blended in with the background.”

    For a while S. made his living as a circus performer, displaying his incredible capacity for memorizing unrelated information. It was then that it occurred to him that forgetting sometimes might be a good idea. His main concern wasn’t whether he would be able to remember all the numbers written on a blackboard that was then removed from the stage, but whether he would be able to prevent his mental images from previous shows mixing together with the new ones.

    He solved the problem by developing a system of erasing and rewriting characters on his own mental blackboard. First he obscured the numbers in his mind’s eye, and later covered them with new ones. He would then try to figure out how to wipe clear the surface again before the next show. Eventually he realized his power of autosuggestion was so strong, he could forget by simply wishing something to disappear.

    Fakir power

    With the help of autosuggestion or by immersing in his memories, S. was even able to control his body functions. His pulse was usually seventy beats a minute. Using nothing but the power of thought, he was able to bring it up to a hundred or down to sixty. When Luria asked him how he did it, S. replied: “There’s nothing unusual about it. I imagine myself trying to catch a train that just took off from the station. I need to catch at least the last carriage to make it. Is it unusual then for my blood pressure to rise? Then I imagine myself lying on a bed perfectly still, trying to fall asleep… I start to doze off … my breathing grows calm, my heart beat slows down …”

    But that wasn’t all. By the power of thought alone, he was able to raise his body temperature in one arm and decrease it in the other. He could use autosuggestion to control pain. When he went to the dentist, he simply imagined that the person sitting in the chair wasn’t him but somebody else. “I was merely standing there, watching ‘him’, who was getting his teeth done. Let ‘him’ feel the pain… It didn’t hurt me, you see, but ‘him’. I didn’t feel any pain.” Like a true scientist, Luria added that this dental experiment was never repeated in one of their sessions.