- In his 1968 book, neuropsychologist Alexander Luria presented the case of Mr. S., a 34-year-old journalist.
- Mr. S. had a memory condition called hyperthymesia. People with the condition recall the vast majority of their life events and experiences.
- Mr. S.’s inability to forget anything caused him difficulty. The images that came into his mind prevented him from focusing on tasks.
Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, in his book The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968), introduced us to one of his patients — Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky, or simply Mr. S. What was so interesting about the 34-year-old journalist, who Luria met in 1920?
Luria (1968) presented a thorough case study of Mr. S.’s incredible ability to remember nearly every detail of his life. We now know that Mr. S. may have suffered from a condition known as hyperthymesia (identified in 2006 by researchers Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, and James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine). People with hyperthymesia can recall, even unintentionally, the vast majority of their life events and experiences, and they find it impossible to forget them.
Investigating Mr. S.'s Memory Processes
Mr. S.’s condition prompted Luria to focus on the characteristics of the patient’s mnemonic processes in an effort to understand elements of the nature of human memory. In Luria’s own words, the experiments carried out by him demonstrated that Mr. S.:
had no difficulty reproducing any lengthy series of words whatever, even though these had originally been presented to him a week, a month, a year, or even many years earlier. In fact, some of these experiments designed to test his retention were performed (without his being given any warning) fifteen or sixteen years after the session in which he had originally recalled the words. Yet invariably they were successful. 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. If one takes into account that S. had by then become a well-known mnemonist, who had to remember hundreds and thousands of series, the feat seems even more remarkable. (p. 11)
Luria investigated how Mr. S.’s memory and its mnemonic mechanisms influenced his personality and learning. He learned that Mr. S. used semiotic resources, through the construction of meanings, to remember the things that were asked of him in the experiments. These semiotic resources were mental images (iconic signs) formed, above all, as a result of his synesthesia and the meanings he attributed to the mental images this generated. According to Luria:
For S., too, it was the meaning of words that was predominantly important. Each word had the effect of summoning up in his mind a graphic image, and what distinguished him from the general run of people was that his images were incomparably more vivid and stable than theirs. Further, his images were invariably linked with synesthetic components (sensations of colored ‘splotches,’ ‘splashes,’ and ‘ones’) which reflected the sound structure of a word and the voice of the speaker. (p. 30)
In one of the experiments, Luria asked Mr. S. to reproduce the first lines of Dante’s "The Divine Comedy" after reading it only once. The reading was, as always, carried out slowly. Each word was pronounced distinctly, with slight pauses between. This made it easier for Mr. S. to convert meaningless sound combinations into comprehensible images.
However, Mr. S. did not speak Italian and, consequently, may have had problems in evoking images with which he could make the necessary associations, since the words had no meaning for him. The verse presented to him was:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per uma selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita
Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura.
Mr. S. remembered the passage perfectly after a few days. Below is his description of how he managed to do so (Luria, 1968, p. 45):
(Nel)—I was paying my membership dues when there, in the corridor, I caught sight of the ballerina Nel’skaya.
(mezzo)—I myself am a violinist; what I do is to set up an image of a man, together with [Russian: vmeste] Nel’skaya, who is playing the violin.
(del)—There’s a pack of Deli Cigarettes near them. (cammin)—I set up an image of a fireplace [Russian: kamin] close by.
(di)—-Then I see a hand pointing toward a door [Russian: dver].
(nostra)—I see a nose [Russian: nos]; a man has tripped and, in falling, gotten his nose pinched in the doorway (tra).
(vita)—He lifts his leg over the threshold, for a child is lying there, that is, a sign of life—vitalism.
The Difficulty with Never Forgetting
Although we may think that Mr. S. had a gift, his inability to forget anything caused him great difficulties. Luria (1968) reported that the memorable images that spontaneously came to Mr. S.’s mind prevented him from focusing on tasks requiring concentration. This was because the images in his mind tended to crowd together and generate more images, often creating confusion. Understanding a simple sentence in a piece of text required a Sisyphean effort.
Mr. S.’s difficulties align with Parker, Cahill, and McGaugh’s (2006) report on people who have hyperthymestic abilities. According to the authors, the constant and irrepressible flow of memories can be burdensome and exhausting. This makes it difficult for the person to pay attention to the present or the future because they live permanently in the past.
It is important to highlight Luria’s studies on the nature of memory and Mr. S.’s very rich accounts of his own hyperthymesia. They have allowed us access to the mechanisms of the condition and help us understand the mind of a mnemonist.
Luria, A. R. (1968). The mind of a mnemonist: A little book about a vast memory. Basic Books
Parker, E. S., Cahill, L., & McGaugh, J. L. (2006). A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase, 12(1), 35-49.