The Mind of a Mnemonist II
Bill Long 2/23/06
The Curse of a Flawless, Synaesthetic Memory
In the previous essay I summarized some key points in what I would call Luria's "positive" portrayal of "S's" limitless capacity to memorize. The limitless capacity emerged from S's synaesthetic ability to create pictures and narratives of the words he was given, so that he could see, taste and hear the words in a vivid fashion. The burden of this essay will be to do two things: (1) to show how this capacity caused problems for S and, (2) to reflect on the way that memory and personality were intertwined for S. Luria only covers the last subject in a brief and inadequate final chapter, but I would like to "add" some of my own "stuff" to the discussion.
Problems with a Perfect Memory
The two most obvious problems with such a good memory are that you have a very limited capacity for non-pictorial thinking and that you have difficulty forgetting anything you have learned. In addition, your "range" or "scope" of mastery of information is very limited, since you just become too confused too quickly when you try to read poetry or even rather straightforward descriptions of things. Instead of focusing on the "task" at hand (e.g., reading the directions to discover how to do things), you launch into your own imaginative world in which every sound represents an image, and the images come together to produce a very vivid picture for you.
Here was the problem for S, as described by Luria.
"When S. read a passage from a text, each word produced an image. As he put it: 'Other people think as they read, but I see it all.' As soon as he began a phrase, images would appear; as he read further, still more images were evoked, and so on. As we mentioned earlier, if a passage were read to him quickly, one image would collide with another in his mind; images would begin to crowd in upon one another and would become contorted" (p. 112).
In a record from March 1937, S wrote:
"I was read this phrase..'N was leaning up against a tree...' I saw a slim young man dressed in a dark blue suit (N., you know, is so elegant). He was standing near a big linden tree with grass and woods all around...But then the sentence went on: 'and was peering into a shop window.' Now how do you like that! It means the scene isn't set in the woods, or in a garden, but he's standing on the street. And I have to start the whole sentence over from the beginning.." (pp. 112-113).
As time went on he learned to limit his picture making capacity to an extent (that is, not to spin out such a full visual scene whenever he had read a word or phrase), but S still was "plagued" with this problem. You can see how he would be utterly unable to deal with abstract thought--because he would always be trying to "picture" things.
Let me add a personal note. I think that S's experience is not all that rare or, if it is, then he and I occupy a world together. I find myself almost completely unable to fill out "forms" of any kind--tax forms, application forms, reimbursement forms. I also cannot follow even the simplest directions on how to do things. I usually can get the name down acceptably and my address, but then I always see the ways that what I have to offer or what I want to represent simply doesn't fit into the categories requested. Or, to put it differently, I don't know how to answer the questions that are posed. Things become complex for me, and I get discouraged, and don't know who to look for to help me. When there is the least dissonance between what I have and want to represent and the categories I think they are asking for in the form, I as it were "retreat" in my mind, and make up a game or a visual feast where my way of presenting knowledge is actually respected. Thus, I don't think I should become an accountant....
Memory and Personality
What is potentially a most interesting topic is dropped by Luria almost as soon as he introduces it. Luria mentions that other treatments of famous mnemonists avoided all attempts to integrate the person's memory skills with his personality. Luria doesn't do that for S, though he gives us a "hint" or two about how he might proceed. Here is that "hint."
"How often it happened that S's striking images failed to coincide with reality; how often, having come to rely on them, he would find he was helpless to deal with circumstances. The incident in court was a particularly vivid example (i.e., he had imagined the way the courtroom would look before going in to present his case to the judge. Actually, the room was differently arranged. This flustered S, and he was unable to present his case. Thus, he lost his case when he should easily have won.), but it was typical of the kinds of incidents S encountered all through life. It was precisely his helplessness at these times which, as he so often complained, led people to take him for a dull, awkward, somewhat absent-minded fellow."
I need one more essay to probe what Luria says about S's personality and then reflect on its application beyond S's experience.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long