Home » Books in General » The Mystery of S., the Man with an Impossible Memory

The Mystery of S., the Man with an Impossible Memory

12 August 2017

From The New Yorker:

On an April afternoon in 1929, a timid-looking man with a broad face appeared at Moscow’s Academy of Communist Education and asked to see a memory specialist. The man, who would become known in the psychological literature as S., had been sent by his boss, a section editor at a Moscow newspaper where S. was a reporter. That morning, the editor had noticed that S. did not take any notes when the daily assignments were made. When he confronted S. about this, S. explained that he didn’t need to write anything down; he simply remembered. The editor picked up a newspaper and read at length from it, challenging S. to repeat everything back to him. When S. did so verbatim, the editor sent him to have his head examined.

The researcher who met with S. that day was twenty-seven-year-old Alexander Luria, whose fame as a founder of neuropsychology still lay before him. Luria began reeling off lists of random numbers and words and asking S. to repeat them, which he did, in ever-lengthening series. Even more remarkably, when Luria retested S. more than fifteen years later, he found those numbers and words still preserved in S.’s memory. “I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory had no distinct limits,” Luria writes in his famous case study of S., “The Mind of a Mnemonist,” published in 1968 in both Russian and English. In the book, Luria describes how S., desperate to purge his mind of unwanted recollections, turned to writing down everything he wanted to forget on slips of paper, in the hope that he might somehow offload these memories. When this failed, he lit the slips of paper on fire and watched them burn to ash, also to no avail.

. . . .

Luria catalogues various difficulties that S. experienced navigating everyday life, linking them to profound deficits he identified in S.’s ability to conceive the world in abstract terms. These cognitive deficiencies, Luria suggests, were related to S.’s extraordinary episodic memory—the memory we have for personal experiences, as opposed to semantic memory (which tells us, for instance, that the dromedary has only one hump). Deriving meaning from the world requires us to relinquish some of its texture. S.’s case, as many readers have noted, resembles the Jorge Luis Borges story “Funes the Memorious,” a fictional work about a man plagued by the persistence of his memory. “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract,” Borges writes. “In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.” Similarly, Luria writes that for S., almost every word, every thought, was freighted with excessive detail.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Books in General

3 Comments to “The Mystery of S., the Man with an Impossible Memory”

  1. True eidetics are rare.
    Even rarer the ones who can actually benefit from the “gift”.
    There was a similar case relatively recently involving a woman from California.


  2. Author David Farland has a similar ability – only his is all aural. He can recall verbatim any conversation he’s ever had. He was recruited by a government organization as a teen because of it. He said that people with that ability often go insane because of the mind clutter. I know there’s a terrible downside, but part of me would love to be able to recall anything instantly.

    • We simply don’t have enough knowledge of how minds (as opposed to brains) work to develop effective memory organization techniques. For normal people they would “merely” serve to reliably improve recall but for the gifted it is essential to maintain their grip.

      Interesting stories lie that way.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.