Literature Annotations


Luria, A. R. (Aleksandr Romanovich)
The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory


Genre Case Study (160 pp.)
KeywordsChronic Illness/Chronic Disease, Communication, Disability, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Memory, Patient Experience, Psycho-social Medicine, Psychosomatic Medicine
Summary

One day in the 1920’s, a newspaper reporter walked into the laboratory of Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and asked him to test his memory, which he recently had been told was unusual. It was not unusual. It was uniquely and astoundingly retentive. Luria gave him very long strings of numbers, words, nonsense syllables and could not detect any limit to his ability to recall them, generally without mistake, even years later. (Luria studied S., as he identifies him, for thirty years.)

Luria discovers that the man had some interesting characteristics to his memory. He experienced synesthesia, i.e., the blending of sensations: a voice was a "crumbly, yellow voice." (p.24) S.’s memory was highly eidetic, i.e., visual, a characteristic not unique to him but which he used as a technique to memorize lists and details. (He had become a performing mnemonist.) It was also auditory. He had trouble remembering a word if its sound did not fit its meaning. The remainder of the section on his memory involves fascinating aspects of his having to learn how to forget and his methods of problem solving.

The remainder of the book is equally interesting since it relates the epiphenomena of S.’s prodigious memory: how he mentally saw everything in his past memory; how he was virtually paralyzed when it came to understanding poetry since metaphorical thinking was almost impossible for him, a mnemonist who lived in a world of unique particulars! As Luria wrote, "S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked." (p. 120)

S. could control his vital signs by his memory and, last but not least, this human experiment of nature had such a vivid imagination that, probably more than the most creative of us, he engaged in "magical thinking": "To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality. Often, if I imagine something is going to happen, it does. Take the time I began arguing with a friend that the cashier in the store was sure to give me too much change. I imagined it to myself in detail, and she actually did give me too much--change of 20 rubles instead of 10. Of course I realize it’s just chance, coincidence, but deep down I also think it’s because I saw it that way." (p. 146)

Commentary

An international giant in clinical neuropsychology and an inspiration for Oliver Sacks’s narratives, Luria helped pioneer the study of the individual patient as interesting bridge between normal and abnormal psychological processes rather than studying animals in a maze, or groups of humans in an experimental setting. His "N of 1" close readings remain fascinating reading today, including The Man with a Shattered World (see this database).

S.’s incredible memory and all its attendant advantages and detriments recall Borges’s short story, Funes the Memorious (Funes el Memorioso).

PublisherBasic Books
Edition1968
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate PublisherHarvard Univ. Press
Alternate Edition1987
Alternate EditorsForeword by Jerome Bruner
Place PublishedCambridge, Mass.
MiscellaneousTranslated from the Russian by Lynn Solotaroff.
Annotated by Ratzan, Richard M.
Date of Entry 06/30/04
Last Revised 11/19/09