Each morning when Moscow reporter Solomon Shereshevsky got to work, his editor assigned him and the other reporters their daily stories, telling them where to go, what to look for, and whom to interview. Despite the intricacy of the instructions, Shereshevsky never took notes, and according to some accounts he never took notes during interviews, either. He just remembered. Still, Shereshevsky wasn’t a great reporter, and at one morning meeting in the mid-1920s his editor’s fuse went off when he saw Shereshevsky blithely nodding at him, no pencil in hand. He called Shereshevsky out, challenging him to repeat his instructions. Shereshevsky did, verbatim – and then repeated every other word the editor had said that morning, too. When his fellow reporters stared, Shereshevsky’s brow knitted in confusion. Didn’t everyone have complete recall? Half amazed, half creeped out, the editor sent Shereshevsky to a local neuroscientist, Aleksandr Luria.
Although a young man then, Luria had already started down the path that would make him one of the most celebrated neuroscientists of the twentieth century. He championed the romantic side of neuroscience, neuroscience that encompassed more than just cells and circuits. He wanted to capture how people actually experienced life, even the messy bits. In doing so, he swam against the current of modern science, which tends to dismiss anecdotal accounts. But individual case studies have always been crucial to neuroscience: as with the best fiction, it’s the particulars of people’s lives that unveil the universal truths. Indeed, Luria’s book-length case reports have been called ‘neurological novels’, and he wrote one of his finest on Shereshevsky.
In all their years of collaboration, Luria found “no distinct limits” to Shereshevsky’s memory. The man could recite lists of thirty, fifty, seventy random words or numbers, in order, forward or backward, after hearing or reading them just once. All he needed was three seconds in between each item, to fix it in his hippocampus; after that, it was lapidary. Even more impressive, whatever he memorized stuck with him for years. In one test Luria read the opening stanzas of Dante’s Inferno in Italian, a language Shereshevsky didn’t speak. Fifteen years later, with no rehearsals in between, Shereshevsky recited the lines from memory, with all the proper accents and poetic stress. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita . . .
You’d think Shereshevsky would have his pick of six-figure jobs, but like many so-called mnemonists, he drifted somewhat loserishly between careers, spending time as a musician, reporter, efficiency consultant, and vaudeville actor (memorising lines was a snap). Unfit for anything else, he finally landed a job in what was essentially a neurological freak show, touring the country and regurgitating numbers and nonsense words to audiences. The gap between his obvious talents and his lowly status gnawed at him, but to Luria the discrepancy made sense. That’s because Luria traced both his mnemonic prowess and his employment woes to the same root cause – excessive synesthesia.
In Shereshevsky’s mind no real boundary existed between the senses. “Every sound he heard,” Luria reported, “immediately produced an experience of light and colour and… taste and touch.” And unlike ‘normal’ synesthetes, whose extra sensations are pretty vanilla (simple odors, single tones), Shereshevsky experienced full-on scenes, full mental stage productions. This became handy when memorising items. Instead of a violet two or chartreuse six, two became “a high-spirited woman,” six “a man with a swollen foot.” The number 87 became a stout woman cozying up to a fellow twirling his mustache. The vividness of each item made recalling it later trivial.
To then remember the order of such items, as in a list, Shereshevsky used a trick. He imagined walking along a road in Moscow or in his hometown (whose layout he knew by heart, needless to say) and ‘depositing’ each image at a landmark. Each syllable of the Dante, for instance, summoned up a ballerina or goat or screaming woman, which he’d then plunk down near whatever fence, stone, or tree he happened to be passing at that moment on his mental stroll. To recall the list later, he simply retraced his route, and “picked up” the images he’d left behind. (Professional mnemonists still use this trick today.) The technique backfired only when Shereshevsky, who was rather rigid, did something foolish, like deposit images in dark alleys. In these cases he couldn’t make the image out, and he’d skip the corresponding item on the list. To an outsider this seemed like a lapse, a chink in Shereshevsky’s memory. Luria realized that this was actually less a failure of memory than of perception – Shereshevsky simply couldn’t see the image, nothing more.
“Shereshevsky felt old lists of numbers and words haunting him, cacophonising inside his skull, elbowing newer memories aside”
Shereshevsky’s memory played other tricks as well. He could increase his pulse rate and even make himself sweat simply by remembering a time when he’d chased down a departing train. He could also (and Luria confirmed this with thermometers) raise the temperature of his right hand by remembering a time he’d held it next to a stove, while simultaneously lowering the temperature of his left hand by remembering what ice felt like. (Shereshevsky could even mentally block out pain in the dentist’s chair.) Somehow his memory could override the “this is just a recollection, it’s not actually happening” signal from the frontal and parietal lobes that should have quelled these somatic reactions.
Unfortunately, Shereshevsky couldn’t always corral his imagination or confine it to turning mnemonic tricks. When reading a book, synesthetic images would start multiplying inside his head, crowding out the text. A few words into a story, he’d be overwhelmed. Conversations took wrong turns, too. He once asked a girl in an ice cream parlour what flavours they had. The (probably innocent) tone in which she responded “fruit ice cream,” he said, caused “whole piles of coals, of black cinders, to come bursting out of her mouth. I couldn’t bring myself to buy any.” He sounds insane, or like Hunter S Thompson at his druggiest. If menus were printed sloppily, Shereshevsky’s meal seemed contaminated by association. He couldn’t eat mayonnaise because a certain sound (zh) in the Russian word for it nauseated him. No wonder he struggled to hold down a job – simple instructions would mutate inside his imagination and stagger him.
Even the travelling mnemonist gig eventually became oppressive. After too many years of doing the show, Shereshevsky felt old lists of numbers and words haunting him, cacophonising inside his skull, elbowing newer memories aside. To rid himself of them, he more or less resorted to voodoo, writing out the lists on paper and burning them. (No luck – the exorcism failed.) Relief came only from suppressing such memories, by training his mind to not acknowledge them. Only dumbing his memory down took the edge off.
Most people who met Shereshevsky considered him dim and timid, a bumbling Prufrock. Indeed, he considered himself pathetic, someone who’d wasted his talent in sideshows. But what else could he have done? With so many memories crowded into his skull – his memory actually stretched back to before his first birthday – his mind became what one observer called “a junk heap of impressions.” As a result he lived in a veritable haze, befuddled and helpless. A memory that’s too good is just as broken as one that’s no good at all.
To be useful, to enrich our lives, memory cannot simply record the world around us. It needs to filter, to discriminate. In fact, while we joke about a poor memory as a sieve, that’s actually the wrong way around. Sieves let water leak through, but they catch substantial things – they catch what we want to preserve. In the same way, a mind functions best when we let some things, like traumatic memories, go. All normal brains are sieves, and thank goodness for that.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.