Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Luria and S.

Luria's portrait of S. (which we read only the beginning of) is remarkable for two reasons: 1) Luria studied S for almost 40 years and 2) he insisted on relating all aspects of his personality together, rather than focussing only on his prodigious memory. Relatively often he explains that they gave up trying to measure his memory, and instead focused on describing it qualitatively.

The first thing you should notice about S.'s memory is it's similarity to the arts of memory.

  • He remembers words and things through images, some fantastic, some relatively unremarkable. (In paricular, he has strong "synaethesia" meaning that the various of his senses overlap in his memory-- smells, colors sounds often evoke each other).
  • His memory for words is much like that in the ad Herrenium where shapes and symbols are associated with images ("As for the number 87, I see a fat woman and a man twirling his mustache." p. 31)
  • He has a locus he uses: sometimes a street in his hometown, sometimes a street in Moscow. Along the street he could place the images and images for words.
  • The system has the same drawbacks: not enough light or too much light prevent him from seeing the objects. Placing a white object against a white background prevents him from "seeing" it when he "walks" through his space.

Luria suggests that when S's memory 'fails' it is due to defects in perception not of memory...

Luria spent years studying how S. used his memory, and in several cases had him explain in detail how he did it. At one point, Luria read S. the first four lines of Dante's divine comedy. S. memorized them, and reproduced them at will 15 years later. He explains how he did it on pges 45-8.

More striking examples are the following:

  • Luria gave S. a complicated equation, about which S. created a set of images and a narrative that would help him reconstruct it.
  • Luria gave S. a series of nonsense syllables, repeated in a maddening grid. S. also figured out how to remember these through stories and images

Problems with Logic

Another peculiar similarity with Funes is that S. is incapable of seeing logical relations. A further section of the book explores this in more detail. Like Funes, S. remembers everything with its own image, so he can verbatim repeat a series which includes the names of several kinds of birds, but cannot pick the names of the birds out of the list. Similarly a table, such as:
1 2 3 4
2 3 4 5
3 4 5 6
4 5 6 7
requires just as much work to remember, because S. does not see the pattern that almost everone else does.

S. also has significant problems with people's faces: "They're so changeable" he said (p 64). "S. saw faces as changing patterns of light and shade, much the same impression a person would get if he were sitting by a window watching the ebb and flow of the sea's waves. Who, indeed, could possible 'recall' all the fluctations of the wave's movements?"

The Art of Forgetting

Finally, S. has a problem few of us have: how to forget. Because he worked for a large part of his life as a professional "mnemonist" remembering large sets of numbers several times per night, he needed a way to 'erase' the items from each performance. His first attempt, he explained, was to cover the blackboard (on which the numbers had been written) with an opaque sheet and mentally crumple it into a ball. This only partially worked.

His next attempt is equally curious, he reasons that normal people write things down in order to remember them; so he decides he will do the same thing, in order to forget them. It didn't work; like Funes, S. continues to see not only the thing, but the image of the paper on which it is written as well. He tries using the same kind of paper and pencil each time, but to no avail.

His solution remains completely mysterious:

One evening - it was the 23rd of April - I was quite exhausted from having given three performances and was wondering how I'd ever get to the fourth. There before me I could see the charts of numbers appearing from the first three performances. It was a terrible problem. I thought: I'll just take a quick look and see if the first chart of numbers is still there: I was somehow afraid it wouldn;t be. I both did and didn't want it to appear... And then I thought: the chart of numbers isn't turning up now and its clear why - it's because I don't want it to! Aha! That means if I don't want the chart to show up it won't. And all it took was for me to realize this!

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Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Wed Feb 26 09:09:34 CST 2003