The Man Who Remembered Everything – Superminds 2
Solomon Shereshevskii had a memory so perfect that he could recall every minute of his life in graphic detail. This fantastic capacity was further distinguished by the fact that he could “feel” images, “taste” colours, and “smell” sounds.
Solomon was born in Russia about 1886. His talent for remembering was discovered when he worked as a newspaper journalist in Moscow in 1905. His editor noticed that Solomon never took any notes when at meetings planning the day’s work. This had irritated the editor enough for him to eventually confront Solomon and criticise him for not doing his job properly. In some ways Solomon was quite a shy and awkward person, and the editor’s criticism embarrassed him. On being questioned however, he explained to his editor that he didn’t understand why anyone needed to take notes. He asked what purpose they had. This led the editor to ask more questions and discover that Solomon remembered everything his editor had said to him at every meeting. The editor realised what an unusual mind Solomon possessed and introduced him to Professor Luria.
A remarkable mental athlete
Professor Luria was a famous doctor who helped people with brain damage, and studied people with special abilities such as Solomon. Luria immediately wanted to try out a series of tests on Solomon. So together they began to explore the limits of what he could remember. To start with Luria asked Solomon to listen to lists of numbers that were read out to him and then repeat them from memory. Solomon was able to perfectly recall the numbers in each of these tests, and Luria gradually increased the length and complication of the list until it got to 70 numbers. Each time Solomon was able to repeat them perfectly and Luria became more astonished with each performance. If you imagine Solomon as a sort of mental athlete, then these test were not even getting him out of breath. So to show Luria a little bit more of what he could do, he repeated the lists backwards without having to hear them again.
The tests proved that Solomon’s ability to remember was almost boundless. Not only did there seem to be no limit to what he could recall, but each memory was indelible. It was never wiped out. So fifteen years later when Luria looked at his records of the lists of numbers he had used in the tests, and asked Solomon if he could repeat them without hearing them again, Solomon remembered without any hesitation. As usual he could repeat them forward or backward.
Because Professor Luria was a scientist, he wanted to make sure Solomon wasn’t faking his ability to remember, and he wanted to find out how such a phenomenal memory worked. He also wanted to know what it was like for Solomon himself. What was it like not to be able to forget anything – even the tiniest details of a room you visited, or a person you met? So once Luria trusted that Solomon had such a memory, he started to ask just what Solomon could remember.
Imagine having a memory so incredibly vivid that late in life you can still clearly recall your mother’s face corning into focus as she bent over your cot. What would it be like to remember every event of your babyhood and school years? Most adults have forgotten their childhood. In some ways this is a blessing, but it means they can’t remember what it was like to feel so helpless, to depend upon someone else to do everything for them, and to have such passionate feelings about events and people. Solomon clearly remembered not only the events from when he was an infant in a cot, but also what he felt in response to what was happening.
Your voice tastes good and seeing you is like music
Luria discovered that when Solomon experienced something, he didn’t simply hear a sound or see something. Instead his impressions of things seemed to merge together. This was not unique to Solomon, and is called ‘synesthesia’. This means that when Solomon heard something he might have an experience of tasting it also – or when he saw something he might also experience it as sound or smell. It is this blending of all his sense impressions that is a clue to the perfection of his memory. When Solomon heard someone speak, their voice might sound ‘crumbly and yellow’. He experienced another person’s voice like a ‘flame with fibres protruding from it’. One event Luria recorded in his book about Solomon (The Mind of a Mnemonist – or perhaps better called a Hyperthymesia) was that Solomon refused to buy ice cream from a woman because he experienced her voice as ‘black cinders bursting out of her mouth’.
Not only did a persons voice produce these accompany images or sensations, but the sound of words also linked with particular inner experiences too. This would often produce a similar difficulty for Solomon as he experienced with the woman selling ice cream. In Russian the word for pig is svinya. This sounded “so fine and elegant” to Solomon so it didn’t suit the pig. The word khasser – Yiddish for pig – sounded just right though, and seemed to sound, and feel, and be experienced as the right quality for the pig. It made Solomon have an impression of a pig’s “fat greasy belly caked with mud.”
These strong mental pictures and sensations were the secret of Solomon’s inexhaustible memory. To remember the long sequence of numbers in the tests Luria had given him was easy. Each number connected with a particular mixture, a sort of mental hologram or many dimensional experience. These mental holograms were made up of sound, colour, taste, touch and smell. Each one was different and because it linked with so many sensory experiences, was easily memorable. As the numbers were read out, Solomon imagined placing these dimensional pictures along a road. To remember the sequence he simply imagined walking along the road again and repeated the numbers.
If only I could forget!
Because these multi-faceted mental holograms accompanying each experience were so intense, Solomon did not lose them as most of us do. For most of us our memory of experiences fades quite fast. For Solomon they would last for hours, crowding his mind with impressions, and making it difficult for him to give attention to what was happening in the present. This was such a problem Solomon tried various methods to get rid of some memories. He tried imagining a great sheet of canvas covering them over. He tried writing down the things he wanted to forget and burning the paper. Nothing worked.
Another problem Solomon faced was that he often found it difficult to recognise people he had know for some time, or recognise whose voice it was on the telephone. Solomon’s awareness of detail was so acute that slight changes in a person’s facial colouring or voice made it difficult to recognise them. Most of us do not even notice such small changes of complexion or vocal sound.
A mental giant with problems
Perhaps because of Solomon’s difficulty in dealing with the immense flood of impressions he met each day, he did not appear to be a mental giant. In fact he struggled with things that many of us deal with easily, and in this sense was mentally crippled by his ability. Sometimes he was timid and cautious. To others he looked awkward and often appeared mentally slow, spending a lot of time daydreaming amidst his vast internal virtual reality world. He worked at dozens of different jobs trying to find something in which he could feel skilled, and, at the same time use his remarkable abilities. Eventually he worked on stage as a memory man – Mnemonist – showing his mental ability to a paying public.
The magic of imagination
Because of the way his mind functioned Solomon demonstrated other remarkable talents than memorising. Being able to walk around his memories and knowledge as if it were a real landscape enabled him to solve problems which required detailed planning, visualisation and thinking. Through using his vivid mental imagery, Solomon said that he could rid himself of pain. He would create an image of the pain, then slowly move that image further and further away until it disappeared over the horizon. He said that at this point the pain disappeared. Using this image making ability he could also change his temperature. If he wanted to feel warmer he would imagine himself in a hot place. If he wanted to feel cold he would imagine himself amidst ice fields.
Solomon always thought that because of his amazing memory he would one day do something great. Instead he spent most of his time daydreaming, exploring the boundless lifelike memories he could relive so vividly. However, in 1968 A. R. Luria’s book about Solomon was published. It has since become recognised as one of the great works of literature on psychological research. So perhaps Solomon did mange his ‘great thing’.
Building your own memory power
Just as athletes learn special techniques to improve their performance, so we can each learn simply things to improve the way our mind works. Our memory is one of the easiest of our mental abilities to improve. Because the brain has such unlimited connections to store information, even people with brain damage can learn an incredible amount.
If you had all your memories locked up in a safe, and to get to any memory you had to dial a long number, such as 5861497300719430476, to be sure you remembered, it would be best to write it down. But if you could open the safe with a picture of a blue horse standing between two trees with a big white bird sitting on his head like a hat, it would be easier to remember. And that is the most important fact to learn about memory. Using images helps us remember, just as it did with Solomon. So instead of asking your mind to do things the hard way, you can start using an easy way. You can then remember ten times the amount you usually do, and you already know a lot!
The mat sat on the cat
Using images or funny descriptions to remember names and numbers is fairly simple. With a name for instance, you can make up a picture which is easy to remember. If you have a friend called Brian Webster, or Brenda Galloway, create pictures or scenes and words which make you laugh or are strange enough to be remembered.
So for Brian Webster we could change his name to Brain, and make a mental picture of a big brain on his body, sitting in the middle of a huge spider web waiting to catch someone. Because we actually have a memory on file of his name as Brian Webster, when we think of him with the weird picture, it is easy to go from Brain on the Web, to Brian Webster.
With Brenda Galloway a bren gun might link with Brenda, and a path to a gallows create a link with Galloway.
But those are my images, and it is best to create your own, made up of pictures or objects you link with the name. Of course this also links with names of things you have to remember in lessons at school. Anything is easier to remember if you link it with an image.
With numbers or dates a similar technique can be used. You can either make up your own image to link with a number – for instance 1 = Dad; 2 = Mum; 3 = mum Dad and yourself; 4 = a horse with four legs, etc. Or you can link numbers with words and the pictures associated with them – 1 = bun; 2 = shoe; 3 = tree; 4 = door; 5 = hive; 6 = sticks; 7 = heaven; 8 = gate; 9 = line; 10 = hen. To remember a date like 1899 you could make a picture of a bun walking through a gate dragging two lines.
When you use pictures to remember something, you must of course run the picture through your mind several times to record it in memory. You then need to recall it the next day to really etch it into your memory.
The great movie maker
Remembering general things like an event in history, or something you have been asked to do, needs a similar technique. Instead of creating a static picture however, you need to make a mental movie. Scenes in a film, for example, are easier to remember than something you read from a book. So make a mental movie of what you are trying to remember. Or if it is something you have been asked to do, make a mental movie of yourself doing it, and make sure there is fun in the picture. If not you may be telling yourself to forget it because you don’t like it!
There are lots of things you already have in your memory that are really useful, but not linked to any easily recalled picture or mental movie. These are the things so useful when writing essays or being creative. At times you might feel you know nothing much. If I ask you what you know about trains for instance, you might come up with a few facts. But if you used a clever memory technique, and wrote the word train in the middle of a blank sheet of paper, then wrote down anything crazy or ordinary that came to mind, and linked it to train, you would come up with a massive amount of information. To start with you could write ‘rails’; then ‘doors’; then ‘driver’; then ‘bridges’ – and the words would go on and on because you know a lot more than you realise. Having written out your words connected with train, you could then easily write something about trains, especially if you wrote about the things you feel regarding trains, and memories of rides.
Your mind is a wonderful treasure place full of feelings, knowledge and creative connections. Use it like an athlete and you can enjoy yourself more than ever.