Book Reviews

The Mind of a Mnemonist - A little book about a vast memory by A. R. Luria

ISBN: 9780674576223
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 192

Imagine having a long list of made-up nonsense syllables read to you. And imagine being able to remember them and repeat the list in any requested order. Impressive, isn't it? Now, imagine being asked, without any prior warning, to repeat the performance a decade later. How much would you be able to remember? S. did not only remember the exact setting where the original testing took place; he could also repeat the original list without any errors in recall. Thanks to A.R. Luria's fine work we get a view of the mechanism behind the apparently limitless memory of S. Further, Luria examines the consequences of living with such a memory; how does it impact personality and what are the weak contra strong points of such a person? The result is a classic book and a highly fascinating glimpse into an amazing mind.

Luria's first encounter with S. came as S. was working as a journalist. His boss noticed that S. never seemed to write anything down, yet always seemed to remember all information given. This marked the start of a scientific study that stretched over decades. Rather than trying to identify the limits of S's memory, Luria tried to understand how it works by means of qualitative studies of the psychological structures behind it. Quite soon it became apparent that the memory of S. was based on synesthesia (synesthesia is a condition where a sensory stimuli activates another sensory modality, e.g. hearing a word triggers seeing a picture representing that very word, perhaps also accompanied by a taste unique to that very word). Interestingly enough, when S failed to reproduce a certain word is was because he'd been distracted during the encoding and thus failed "to see" the word clearly.

As Luria concludes, S. memory was actually more about attention and perception than traditional memory processes. This had the consequence that S. memory worked radically different than what we're used to. For example, forgetting was almost impossible for S. He actually tried, with quite mixed results, to work out strategies that would allow him to forget. Another problem was that S. had huge problems with abstract concepts since each word inevitably triggered a picture (how do you visualize the concept of "nothing"?). Again, this is radically different from how we normally function. Normally, we focus on the key elements that provide the most information. We also identify patterns and abstract from them. I would say that S. perfect memory was an impediment since he never had to develop this fundamental ability to abstract. Since childhood, S. could remember all the details. Thus, he could get along with a sort-of brute force approach to remembering.

Luria paints a fascinating portrait of a man with an amazing memory and the effects it had on his personality and life. It's a highly readable book whose story stays with you for a long time. Spontaneously, most of us would probably consider such a perfect memory a blessing. I find it fascinating that such a memory actually turned out to pose severe problems. In conclusion, The Mind of a Mnemonist is a phenomenal and influential book that has earned its well-deserved status as a classic.

Reviewed February 2011