Edited transcript of Facebook Live – 14th June 2020 by Phil Chambers

Today I’d like to talk to you about Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky. He was a failed musician and newspaper reporter in Moscow, in the 1920s. Every morning, the editor of the newspaper would hold his briefings, giving out the stories of the day, information he’d like the reporters to find out and so on.  Shereshevsky, or ‘S’ as he was known, would just sit there passively listening, not taking any notes. All the other reporters had their notebooks out, frantically scribbling down all the information. The editor was about to admonish ‘S’ for lack of attention, and not getting engaged in the meeting. When challenged ‘S’ was able to recite back everything that had been said perfectly. He didn’t think it was unusual. He thought everybody memorized like that. He couldn’t see how, if somebody was told something, they couldn’t remember what had been said. He just thought it was actually absolutely natural! The editor told him this was not normal and to go to the psychology department at the university of Moscow to find out how he did this. 

‘S’ booked an appointment with Dr. Alexander Luria at the University and showed him the letter from the editor, asking his memory to be tested. Luria, not expecting anything special, just gave him a standard memory test – some numbers and words written down with others delivered verbally. ‘S’ was able to recite them all back 100% perfectly. Luria tried a longer test. The same thing happened and this piqued his interest. It ended up being a 30-year research project where ‘S” would visit Luria on a regular basis. Sometimes separated by weeks and months, other times separated by years. What was really remarkable is that without any prior warning, ‘S’ could still recite the data he was presented with several years later. Not only that, he could remember the context. He’d say we met in your apartment, you were sitting at your desk, I was sitting in the rocking chair… and you said to me, these words, and he was able to recite them perfectly. It was a fantastic amount of data memorized and also longevity of that memory as well. 

In the end, Luria decided there was no point trying to find the limits of ‘S’s memory, because he didn’t appear to have one. It was infinite capacity. So he then set about trying to find out how ‘S’ did this and also how he thought – His personality and the effects of having a perfect memory on his, psychological outlook on life and so on. Luria wrote a fascinating book called “The Mind of a Mnemonist” – It’s highly recommended you read this if you’re interested in the story.

‘S’ had a special medical condition called synaesthesia. It’s a blending of the senses. He had five ways synaesthesia, meaning every sense triggered every other sense. He could smell colors. He could taste words. He had a physical sensation in his fingers when he read things. He could make extra associations based on the fact that every sense gave him multiple feelings. He also naturally used locations around Moscow. He imagined the things he was asked to memorise and recall happening in certain locations. 

It’s interesting the way he approached problem solving – always visually with no abstraction in his thinking. One problem he was given was as follows: Consider a two-volume dictionary on a bookshelf. Volume one to the left of volume two as normal. Each has 400 words. A bookworm starts eating on page one of volume one and continues eating through the pages to page 400 of volume two. Logically mathematically, you think, well, 400 plus 400 must be 800 pages. ‘S” didn’t see it like that and got the right answer (not 800) instantly. He didn’t see how anyone could possibly propose any other solution than the one he arrived at. If you imagine the books sitting on the shelf, you can see that the front cover of the first volume is actually next to the back cover of the second volume. So, if the bookworm starts on page one of the first volume and moves to the right eating, eating, eating – The first thing he finds is the cover of the first volume. Next, he finds the back cover of the second volume then page 400 of the second volume where he stops. He only actually eats through the bindings, he doesn’t eat any of the internal pages. The answer is two pages if you count the bindings or zero internal pages. 

The fact he always approached things visually meant that he didn’t fall into the trap of thinking 800. He used imagination, the ability to make connections and associations through his synaesthesia and natural use of locations around Moscow to memorize the things he was asked to. In effect, naturally using the same techniques as mental athletes use nowadays in their systems of Imagination, Association, Location. He eventually quit the newspaper and ended up getting a job as a professional mnemonist, performing on stage. Towards the end of his life his inability to forget became a source of anxiety for him. He tried to write things down and burn them in effort to forget. A tragic end to a remarkable individual, who’s taught the psychologists and mental athletes so much about how to memorize things effectively. 

Hopefully that’s been of interest. I’ll talk to you again next week about another memory hero of yesteryear. 

Thanks for listening. 

Bye for now.