Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget

How many times have you been sat revising for an exam wishing that you had the power of a perfect instantaneous memory? Well, for a tiny number of people that isn’t just a pipe dream. Known as mnemonists these individuals have unfathomable memories and data recall. This is the story of one of the first properly studied, and most interesting cases, Solomon Shereshevskii.

Born in Russia in 1886 to a Jewish family Shereshevskii, or simply ‘S’ as he is sometimes referred in literature externally appeared to lead a normal life. As an adult, after failing as a musician he embarked on a career as a journalist. It wasn’t till a chance meeting with the Neuropsychologist Alexander Luria (one of the founding fathers of the discipline) that his gift became apparent.

Alexander Luria

Shereshesvkii was reporting on a talk given by Luria. At one point Luria looked around the room and noticed that, unlike all the rest of the journalists, there was an individual not taking any notes. Luria confronted Shereshesvkii asking why he was not taking notes, at this point Shereshesvkii recited his entire talk back to word for word. Luria was stunned, as was Shereshesvkii who at this point had never realised that no one else had his perfect recall. This began a friendship and research partnership that lasted many years, with Luria conducting many studies into what might be the cause of his incredible abilities.

Luria’s studies revealed many interesting things about the workings of Shereshesvkii mind. His descriptions indicate that Sherevskii had “at least six different types of synaesthesia” triggered by at least four different sensations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The synysthetic links outlined by Luria in his book "The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory" (The page numbers indicate the pages of evidence for each link)

Sherevskii synaesthesia was very vivid describing the reaction he got when thinking about numbers as:

“Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person; 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a moustache; 8 a very stout woman—a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his moustache”

Shereshevskii’s ability to recall numbers was a particular area of study for Luria. The tests began with Luria giving him 30 numbers to memorise and testing him soon after, unsurprisingly given his previously demonstrated abilities this was no problem. He was then given longer and longer sequences (peaking at 70) and was able to recall them all. Curious about Shereshevskii’s long term memory Luria then asked him 15-16 years later for the original sequence of numbers, and he was able to remember the sequence.

However, having such vivid and accurate memory did have its problems. Due to the connection between his senses he sometimes had unpleasant reactions to stimuli, saying:

“One time I went to buy some ice cream … I walked over to the vendor and asked her what kind of ice cream she had. ‘Fruit ice cream,’ she said. But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any ice cream after she had answered in that way”

He also had a difficulty recognising faces, which he saw as “interchangeable”, occasionally had problems reading (due to the distracting sensations the words could cause) and grew frustrated with his inability to forget.

Luria said of Sherevskii that he “had no distinct limits . . . there was no limit either to the capacity of S.’s memory or the durability of the traces retained”.

Towards the ends of his life Sherevskii claimed to have discovered a way of selectively forgetting memories, although this was never scientifically tested.  

Sources:

ResearchBlogging.org

Yaro C, & Ward J (2007). Searching for Shereshevskii: what is superior about the memory of synaesthetes? Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 60 (5), 681-95 PMID: 17455076

Alexander Luria (1988). The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (reprint). PsycCRITIQUES, 33 (3) DOI: 10.1037/025559

Advertisements

90 thoughts on “Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget

  1. Interesting case study — and it truly reminds me to be careful what you wish for. We can all see the benefits of a “limitless” memory, but I’m sure there are many negatives to such a life as well.

  2. I wonder how many of these people like this wish they didn’t have this ability. All of us normal people think we want the “talent” these guys have, all of these types of people probably wish they were normal. Is there a place where the grass is greener?

  3. I have always been fascinated with memory and how the brain works. I had some terrible experiences in my early years and spent all my teen’s and 20’s trying to erase the bad images from my mind. What happend was that I developed a very poor memory. To this day, I keep notes on everything, as I don’t recall very much. I always thought this was caused by my many years of trying to forget, even doing what I called “self-hypnosis”. However, there seem to be other things that affect the ability to remember, such as being so stressed that one just doesn’t see or hear the things around one and therefore, doesn’t remember them. I have often wondered how this works in with the concept I have often heard that, while we cannot recall things, they nevertheless exist in our memory somewhere! Are we being influence by memories that we can’t recall? If that is so, how much of our actions and decisions are free will and how much are we being controlled by unconcious memories? Weird.

  4. You know, I still think I would take perfect recall over the negative aspects of having to see words. I actually bet that it would improve my writing. 🙂

  5. I can’t help but to wonder: if we all had this ability, wouldn’t the world be a different and better place to live in? Watch what you say!
    Things like this are so interesting! Is this where we are all headed with evolution? What are our brains truly capable of? Why is it that in some people these connections are made, and in others it’s not? Psycology? DNA? Epigenetics? I would be curious to learn what his gray-brain ratio was in relation to a normal person.

  6. I don’t see how not being able to forget would ever be a problem. He could just conciously decide not to think about a particular memory, and since his memory is perfect he would never forget not to think about it!

  7. Some mornings I have difficulty remembering my name. I blame this fully on having stuffed too much up there to sort through it all rather than actually forgetting.

  8. I remember watching a documentary about it (could have been the same person as well) on Discovery Channel when I was little. I was thinking: what a drama must that have been, to have memories for everything that happens in his life.. Imagine walking the same path every day and reliving all your memories from previous days in an eternal loop.
    Thumbs up for the post!

  9. Well written Write-up. Glad i am able yo locate a site with some knowledge plus a great writing style.
    You keep publishing and i will continue to Keep browsing

    Thanks Again

  10. great article!

    synesthesia is an interesting phenomenon, brought on also by strong hallucinogens. i didn’t know it came to those with a good memory, though.
    on that note, i really wouldn’t want to have a sharp memory. my boyfriend is lucky enough that i forget most things he does… (sort of)

  11. Synesthesia is really awsome, but can get frustarting and annoying when peopke have no idea what you’re talking about. I only have grapheme-color (letters and numbers are colors) and It gets irksome. i can’t imagine having so many forms at once and having to remember everything would be torture.

  12. When I was a student, I shared a rental house with a friend who saw people as colours. At the time, I just thought she was weird, (and was offended that she told me I was Brown!) but I realise now she had synesthesia. She died in a car crash many years ago, before the topic was so openly discussed, so I can’t check with her now, but it must have been lonely dealing with it when nobody took her seriously.

  13. He must have wondered why on Earth everyone else took notes for all that time.

    Synaesthesia isn’t anything special. I’ve got it for languages and certain branches of mathematics. I sometimes wonder whether my inability to give a damn for either statistics or thermodynamics was because they taste and smell like absolutely nothing. Everything else is pretty vivid, languages in particular. One of the big reasons why I love Welsh is that it’s dark wine-red, which is my favorite color. I also have TLE, though — they tend to go together.

    Rather than problems recognizing faces, I have the opposite thing where I can pick them out and retain them with almost no effort. Faces are not substantially different from words, and you don’t have to remember the shape of every letter of a word you see. You just remember the whole thing. I remember taking a couple of face-recognition tests online once (computer-generated faces and celebrity faces), and I scored a 100% on both. Average was only something like 80%. One of the researchers contacted me and wanted me to get tested for exceptional face recognition, but I already know my brain is weird. I didn’t feel like being certified by guys with doctorates as having a screwy brain again.

    • I wouldn’t say it isn’t anything special. For those of us with brains like a sieve it’s actually quite fascinating. I’d love to have your ability for languages for example. My memory is terrible but I generally find that, in areas that I’m passionate about, it gets considerably better. And if my wife asks me to do something it gets considerably worse! You’re probably regarded as being unique or special rather than someone with a ‘screwy brain’. Well, that’s how I see you.

      • Believe me, my short-term memory stinks on ice! That’s another symptom of TLE. Once it makes it through to long-term, it’s there for good, but the switching from short to long-term isn’t so trustworthy. I found my car keys in the FREEZER once.

  14. This was a really interesting read – the human brain is probably the most fascinating thing on earth, in my opinion. Imagine a computer trying to remember and recall all of that information at that speed. It takes a very big computer to even compete with human thought, at least for now…

  15. Rather interesting…Now that explains a bit of my aptitude for particular things. I’ve heard of people that hear sound as color before but…perfect memory? Fascinating.

  16. Also fascinating is British savant Daniel Tammet who describes, in the documentary “Brainman”, seeing numbers like landscapes, which enabled him to recite Pi to 22,514 decimal places. At the request of the producers, he demonstrates his facility with languages by learning Polish in one week. His memoir “Born on a Blue Day” is a good read. For help with language learning go to his website http://www.optimnem.co.uk/

    http://everyonetalk.wordpress.com/

  17. Pingback: Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget (via B Good Science Blog) | thouspilleth

    • I think Oliver Sacks mentioned cases like this in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. In my current blog , in the last few p\aragraphs, I examined the possibilty of a gift even more starting than S

  18. Wow! What a story. Sometimes I think that this ability would be useful in certain situations where perfect recall would be highly advantageous, but I guess that it would be a blessing as well as a curse, because you would remember all of the horrible/bad things also as well as remembering all of the good and useful things. You would never be able to forget any bad thing that happened or that you read, heard, or saw in your life, ever!

    So maybe this is not so good after all…Perhaps this is why we humans are not meant to have perfect recall, so that our brains can have selective memory and weed out/forget most of the bad things that happen to us and remember mostly the good things that happen to us…except those bad things that we need to remember in order to be able to learn from them so as not to get into more bad situations and avoid repeating past mistakes in the future!

  19. at first look it seems to have been a wonderful ability, but for me, for someone who is used to living with her “fish memory” (it refers to my blog’s turkish name also) ,an ability like this would be like “left someone with life in hell”!

    i am happy that i can forget!

  20. well that’s interesting. I composed similar system for counting numbers when I was little, especially when my parents gave me the dot and numbers picture to connect. I do to have a strong memory but I tend to forget recent events and I have trouble to remember online chat conversation.
    thanks for sharing the article.

  21. A very well-reported case of synaesthesia, I find… It made me think about a book, written by an autist who present such a mnemonic and perceptive characteristic : do you know “Born on a blue day”, by Daniel Tammet ?

    • I have not read the book but do know a little about Tammet, is it him who holds the record for the most numbers of Pi recited? Would you recommend the book?

      • Yes it is – if you are time poor – check him out on Youtube and google – there are video cllips – we need to know more aout this – in daniels case how he got this way is intriguing – he had epileptic fits that triggered something in his brain. definitely look him up
        Thank you for finding this link too. Will be adding to my collection of stuff about brain functioning!!!

  22. Interesting post. I borrowed a book in one of my classmates one day. The book was about how to get a high grade during examinations. One of the things that I remembered there was that before you took an exam, it is suggested that you should list down all of your worries/problems in a paper and it will somehow, boost your intelligence before getting an exam. I’ve tried that before, and it was somehow true.

    Just sharin’.
    Congrats for making it to the freshly pressed!

    Cheers,
    Inelle

    PS: Yeah. I think my dad is a mnemonists. 🙂

  23. I think I have forgotten more than I can remember! Though I do remember forgetting and forgetting to remember! I think? 🙂
    Congrats on being FP! A good read.

  24. This is really interesting! Yes, I was going to say, it sounds like the kinds of things Oliver Sacks writes about–as johnlmalone said above. ( “An Anthropologist on Mars” is the Sacks book I’ve read–I’d recommend it, very intriguing.)

    I most certainly would not want to remember everything–though it would be better than the alternative…

    A fascinating post! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  25. It is common knowledge that the more “senses” we use while we try to remember the more likely we are to remember it. Some people’s brains do that easily and others have to be directly taught. That is the essences of what cognitive tutoring really is.

  26. Pingback: Build a Better Brain « The Education Cafe

  27. Pingback: College Professor Critiques Homeschoolers « The Education Cafe

  28. wow, thanks. Really made me think about what you want in life. It seems that nature gave most of us the exact right amount for everything.

  29. When I was a little younger, I had a fairly amazing power for recall. I might still have it but haven’t had much opportunity to test it. I had this legal studies test and the night before, I memorised the textbook. No wonder I got a perfect grade! My facility was with words rather than numbers. I can also remember events from when I was 3 years old with amazing clarity. But I would think when feeling regret, people who are mnemonists would feel it deeper.

  30. Great post, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I enjoyed reading this story very much. I unfortunatly have the CRS Syndrome bad. It has been a life long struggle. Lots of little pieces of paper in my past and I know it will continue into the future. Thanks again for sharing.

      • Yes, Stephen Wiltshire is actually one of the people Oliver Sacks (a neurologist) wrote about in “An Anthropologist on Mars”–a fascinating collection of cases. I’d really recommend the book!

        Sacks interviewed Stephen Wiltshire when he was still a child–so it’s interesting to see this video about him as an adult.

  31. Pingback: B Good Science Blog on “the man who could not forget” | Cognitive Science Blog

  32. Pingback: Piège de cristal[lisation] « myunfunnyvalentine

  33. Pingback: Poprawiony wpis (ale pozbawiony linków) | Wiadomości o technologiach IT

  34. Pingback: Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget (via B Good Science Blog) | Gradissima

  35. Forgetting is as important as recalling! =:o) I love learning about the representation and the processing of languages!! Bengood4000, if you are happy being freshly pressed, congratulations!!

  36. With cases such as this, it does make me wonder what the total capacity of the human brain really is. It must’ve been a massive torment to have such a wonderful gift, and to for him to go so long without realising this wasn’t ‘normal’ for a human being must’ve been terrible.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed too, mate

  37. That’s so crazy because just last Monday they brought an Episode of House about a women with the same case. I know House is Fictional but show’s like this usually are based on real studies that are dramatized for the viewers excitement. In the Episode the Women couldn’t forgive her sister for things she has done over the years and even when her sister gave her her kidney to help her live she wasn’t able to forgive her because over the years her sisters bads overweighed her goods. For us normal people when given an organ that would save our life we would forget everything bad but because this women couldn’t forget she couldn’t forgive. Forgetting is taken for granted but it’s a blessing. Who would want to remember being in a horrific accident or the pain of delivering a child.

  38. Before a colonoscopy, I mentally prepared a week in advance. I was determined about not being put to sleep. I adamantly refused anesthesia(against the doc and assistant’s suggestion)…I sung gospel instead! The doc and assistant both appeared shocked when I finished the last phrase of “I sing because I ‘m happy, I sing because I’m free”….The doc removed the snakelike equipment from my intestine….looked at me and said, “You can come back and sing for us any time!” I was rolled back to my room on the operating table, greeted my awaiting husband, jumped up, put on my clothes, and went home, anesthesia free.

    The mind is powerful! Strong, personal will is unconquerable.

    The traits you explain concerning Mr.Sherevskii’s condition are a bit similar to the traits of an autistic boy I once nannied. His mom gave me the book, Born on a Blue Day.
    Fascinating!!!

    This blog entry is fetching!

  39. i can’t imagine remember so much but I have heard they only remember facts or events as the emotions are not truly remembered. If they experience emotions, I’ve heard it is now and not a remember emotion so as their outlooks change, there emotions they have to the memory can change as well. Don’t knwo but it is interesting the way people like this remember and what they do or don’t remember.

  40. Pingback: Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Put His Head in a Particle Accelerator « B Good Science Blog

  41. We sell all kinds of sport shoes and clothes for men ,women and kids.
    we can assure you of the good quality of product, competitive price,excellent service and prompt delivery on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.
    For more details, please inquire the website( http://www.airkickse.com) Happy shop

  42. Pingback: Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Put His Head in a Particle Accelerator | bgoodscience.co.uk

  43. Pingback: 152 Blogs on social media, policitics, philosophy, the arts, and e-learning that I try to keep an eye on « My Mind Bursts

  44. Probably, he grew up in an Ashkenazi jewish community, where such memory skill is pretty common.
    I have eidetic memory, and my mom thought everyone did.

    “I have total recall.”—-Daniel, in “The Chosen”

  45. “How many times have you been sat revising for an exam wishing that you had the power of a perfect instantaneous memory?”

    Not as many times as I’ve had to CTRL++ to read a news article that otherwise would have required a microscope.

  46. Pingback: Blogs-I-like « My Mind Bursts

  47. Pingback: Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget | My Mind Bursts

  48. Pingback: On Memory « The Brothers Dreyzen

  49. Pingback: 25 Kickass and Interesting Facts About Memories | KickassFacts.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s