The Mind of a Mnemonist October 12, 2010
I just finished reading The Mind of a Mnemonist by A.R. Luria. The book is an intriguing glimpse into a different way of thinking. Luria describes several sessions and written exchanges with Solomon Sherashevsky. Sherashevsky had synesthesia and an incredible memory. The book covers Luria's interactions with Sherashevsky over the period of about 30 years.
While Luria describes Sherashevsky's memory as eidetic (photographic), it isn't anything like what I imagined a photographic memory would be. For example, when given a list of words or numbers to memorize Sherashevsky would not merely take a mental picture of the list. Instead, he would construct a scene, often on a road near where he grew up, and place each item in the scene. He relied so completely on the vividness of the mental image he constructed that if he were to place an item somewhere that it would be hard to see, such as an egg near a white wall, then he might miss it during recall. Luria also mentioned throughout the book that Sherashevsky was able to recall lists of various items from their sessions decades prior.
Reality and Imagination
The mental imagery that Sherashevsky created were so real that they were able to trick both his cognitive processes and bodily function. Sherashevsky related accounts of how when he was a child he frequently fooled himself into thinking that time had stopped because he pictured that the hands on his clock had not moved. Even more intriguing was when Sherashevsky demonstrated under controlled conditions his ability to both raise and lower his heart rate and to change the temperature of his two hands at will. Sherashevsky's method for these feats was simply to picture himself in situations which called for it such as running to catch a train or holding a block of ice.
Unfortunately for Sherashevsky, he didn't have much control over his rich sensory experience. When reading a story or listening to someone talk his mind would be flooded with images, sounds, and smells of all kinds. While it is likely that this extra sensory information contributed to his fantastic memory, it also made it very difficult for him to understand many things that we take for granted. A simple conversation would force his mind to wander in whatever direction his synesthesia directed him. It required great effort for him to focus on a single topic.
The book covers more topics than I have mentioned here such as Sherashevsky's personality and the challenges that abstract thought presented him. Luria's account of Sherashevsky is a very personal one for a patient and I'm thankful for that dimension of the story. It helped me having a real person I could relate to throughout the story. This made me wonder about how someone who can picture such convincing mental representations of people and places would cope with the loss of a loved one. It's a wonder to me how he was able to keep his sanity at all. Luria has a similar work, also in the genre of 'Romantic Science', titled 'The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound' that is probably also worth a look.