The Amazing Shereshevsky

If you feel sheepish about your inability to remember your wife’s birthday or where you left your car keys, don’t fret. We’re all more or less memory-challenged compared to an early 20th-Century Russian named Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky, who could store more data in his head than we’ll ever forget.

Pioneering Russian neurologist and memory researcher Aleksandr R. Luria spent decades studying Shereshevsky, whom he met in the 1920s. (He eventually would write a book about his subject, which was published in 1968 as The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Big Memory.)

Shereshevsky, a newspaper reporter, was sent to see Luria by his puzzled boss, who had noticed that Shereshevsky never took notes when he interviewed news sources. Luria subjected the then-30-year-old to a variety of tests, and was astonished by the results.  As Luria later recalled, 
He read or listened attentively and then repeated the material exactly as it had been presented. I increased the number of elements in each series, giving him as many as thirty, fifty or even seventy words or numbers, but this, too, presented no problem for him…usually during an experiment he would close his eyes or stare into space, fixing his gaze on one point; when the experiment was over, he would ask that we pause while he went over the material in his mind to see if he had retained it. Thereupon, without another moment’s pause, he would reproduce the series that had been read to him.

Once he memorized a series of items, he could also recite it either forward or in reverse. Moreover, he didn’t even need to understand what he was memorizing. In one famous test, Shereshevsky memorized a stanza from Dante’s The Divine Comedy in Italian, and was able to recite it from memory with perfect inflection 15 years later–even though he didn’t speak the language in which it was written. 

Luria was dumbfounded by Shereshevsky’s abilities. 

I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory had no distinct limits, that I had been unable to perform what one would think was the simplest task a psychologist can do: measure the capacity of an individual’s memory.

Like most memory whizzes, Shereshevsky had a mnemonic system that he used to commit data to his memory and retrieve it when the time came. Such systems date back at least to the 5th Century BC, when the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos devised the “method of loci,” which involves memorizing items along an imagined journey and then retracing the route to recall them. But Shereshevsky’s methods may have been unique, and bizarrely so. Luria discovered that he had an ability called synaesthesia, in which sensory data picked up by one of his senses stimulated a reaction in all the others. If Shereshevsky heard music, for example, the notes would trigger flashes of color, and touching something caused him to experience taste. He also had a extraordinarily vivid imagination, one capable of conjuring up odd images from something as seemingly nondescript as numbers. (The number 7, for example, prompted him to think of a man with a moustache. while 8 represented a portly woman.) He also could memorize a poem in an unfamiliar language by linking the words to sound-alikes in Russian, even if they had totally different meanings. 

News of Shereshevsky didn’t reach the U.S. until 1947, when this  Associated Press article, filed from London, quoted Luria proclaiming that his subject “probably possesses the strongest memory of all men.”

Shereshevsky’s amazing powers of recollection, however, did bring with them some liabilities. He remembered everything, but he had great difficulty analyzing that mountain of information and picking out the details that had the most meaning. He was unable to grasp metaphors, and even though he could recite poetry from memory, he struggled to make sense of the meanings that the poet tried to convey. “Each expression gave rise to a remembered image,” Luria explained in his book. “This, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked.”

Shereshevsky’s nonstop mental mashup of unrelated sensory information also at times made it difficult to lead a normal life, as explained this article on the website of Audioblox, a company that makes software to aid those with learning disabilities. If he tried to buy ice cream from a street vendor, for example, the way she pronounced the flavors might cause him to think of the taste of coal ashes. 

There’s not much other biographical information available about Shereshevsky on the Web. According to the Audioblox article, he eventually gave up journalism and tried his hand as an entertainer, doing an act built upon his memory feats. But apparently that wasn’t satisfying to him. He later worked as a cab driver, and died in 1956. 

Here’s a 1998 New York Times review of a stage play, I Am a Phenomenon, that Peter Brooks wrote about Shereshevsky.

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