The Death of a Mnemonist - 2 minutes read

Solomon Shereshevsky dreamt of being a hero. He spent his life waiting for ‘something fine, something grand’. Born in the 1880s in the small Russian town of Rezhitsa, now Rēzekne in Latvia, he was a sometime music student, efficiency expert and broker.

By the late 1920s, he was working on a newspaper. His editor asked why he never took notes in meetings. I remember everything, Shereshevsky said. The editor read out a section of print. Shereshevsky repeated it word for word. The editor sent him for tests.

That brought him to neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Over the next 30 years Luria would discover that Shereshevsky’s memory had no limits. Luria read the first lines of Dante’s Inferno to him in Italian, a language he didn’t know. Some 15 years later, without notice, Luria asked Shereshevsky to repeat them: he did so flawlessly.

Part of his ability was down to extreme synaesthesia. A fence had a salty taste and a sharp, piercing sound. ‘The word mama’, he said, ‘is a bright haze.’ But his principal strategy was to turn every word into an image, and to distribute each image in his mind along a street he knew well. Somehow he had invented for himself the memory palace, a mnemonic tool dating back to antiquity. Cicero attributes the technique to Simonides, a sixth-century BC poet. 

But why was his memory so strong? Shereshevsky remembered his first months: his wickerwork crib, brown walls, white sheets, his mother’s embrace, warmth and then cold. His awareness, Luria wrote, was dominated by ‘images of his childhood: of the little house he had lived in in Rezhitsa; of the yard [with] horses standing in the shed, where everything smelled of oats and manure’. Wherever he walked in his mind, he walked himself back there.

Perhaps there is a classical precedent for this, too. In his first-century BC treatise On the Latin Language, Varro offers a derivation for the verb recordari, to remember. It is formed from revocare, to call back, he says, wrapped around the word cor, meaning heart.

Shereshevsky died on 1 May 1958, not a hero, but possessed of greatness yet.

Source: History Today Feed