The Mind of a Mnemonist

I think a lot of people hear about the method of loci at a young age but then ignore it. I certainly did when I was a kid. Probably every 5-10 years or so I’d pick up one of these memory books and see if anything new had been invented, and I was generally unimpressed because it seems like it was mostly useful for memorizing random things and not information that actually has meaning. So this would have been in the 70s and 80s. Books like Sheila Ostrander’s “SuperLearning” and other stuff like that were not attractive to me because there was not context I could glean from people being really successful with them. Plus, without motivation I found I could practice those techniques for maybe 30 minutes and then reject them as being too ponderous. I think one book I read even had all the pegs mapped out, which is silly because may were not meaningful to me or easy to remember at all.

Now if you are a synesthete, maybe the first time you hear about the method of loci your initial success is greater and that encourages practice. So it could be that S fell into this practice at at early age and didn’t think about about it.

One thing that impressed me about S vs. professional mnenomists is that Luria tested S on random syllables without warning and S was still successful at those. A trained mnemonist might have to practice a system for that ahead of time. Now it’s possible that S was clever and somehow found out that would be one of the tests so he could prepare something, but to be effective at random information for which you have no previous encoding and no chance to practice seems fairly impressive to me. Imagine if you showed up at a competition expecting to memorize decimal digits and then they changed the rules and announced, “okay, we’re going to memorize emoticons instead.” How well would you do?

It looks like Daniel Tammet is spending a lot of time sanitizing his Wikipedia page. It even restates that he didn’t have any memory training and another “scientist” saying it wouldn’t matter if he had.

We can’t really know what is going on inside another persons head without complete trust. Personally, I believe that S was a synthesede who learned basic mnemonics to help remember things and his natural ability made him amazing. I remember reading somewhere that he eventually committed suicide because he was brought out of his fantasy world too often, so I’m not sure he did it for the money. It seems believable that he didn’t realize it. It took me a long time to realize most people didn’t immediately get everything in science. My friend Sam explained that to me. If I didn’t realize this basic things, it doesn’t surprise me that S didn’t realize he was unique. As for Tammet, I believe he’s a fraud. Too many of his stories contradict and don’t add up. But the fact that we’re talking about him is exactly what he probably wanted when he began doing this.

I blame the “scientists”. This really puts the field in a bad light. Did they ever test his claim of having 10,000 shapes for numbers? Easy enough to do. Even in the film where he meets Kim Peek, we only have Tammet’s word on what Peek whispered to him. Did he say that? Does he say that to everyone? Did they obtain hospital records of epileptic seizures? Or maybe it’s the documentarians who don’t mention any reservations by the scientists.

It’s a very strange story.
I think it is only a matter of time before many of those wild claims are finally dispelled.

Finally I can add somthing.

Most people I met when I first joined Mensa (Very suprised I qualified!) told me that they were very suprised that they qualified. There are less inteligent people out there driving cars for heavens sake. With this in mind I can believe that S could have made it to twenty before finding out that he could do what others could not. His method being natural to him, afflicted with fantasy as he was, would have needed little effort to improve.

The more recent “T” described in Moonwalking sounds like the standard performer type. Kreskin (the amazing) would spin yarns about reading minds when he was young while regular magicians would know he was doing Dunninger’s act from long ago. A little real performance and building the legend in his spare time.

It is useful to know that some of the best performers of all kinds, more so the further back you go, did not become performers because of some great inherent ability, much less their humanity, but to avoid immanent poverty and starvation. A Giant ego and a good agent help to stick it out through the tough times. The rule is; If anything can keep you out of show business, let it.

For skeptics of science as the last word on reality check out Randi (also the amazing) whose skepticism help beat down many psuedo psychics and wonder workers. On a tv show he was part of they had a Human Calculator guy show off his skills to demonstrate what real amazing skill should look like. A mnemonist would do the same thing.

I think “T” would be classified as a working mnumonist which would cause frustration to the legitimate amateurs who can’t make a living at it. Actors and musicians have the same frustrating distinctions and politics (watch “Shakes the Clown” some time for the whole story).


My sister’s friend recently gave me a bunch of her old textbooks. One of them is “Psychology and Sociology Applied to Medicine”. It has a short section on memory in which it says this:

“Realising that we have seen a film previously, but only about 10 minutes before its end, or revisiting a childhood home and having a flood of forgotten memories, are powerful experiences which may tempt us into thinking that we do indeed store all events, and given the right conditions, could retrieve such memories. Although there are well-documented cases of people with exceptional memories (one fascinating account is provided by the Russian neuropsychologist Luria), there is no scientific evidence to support this ‘videotape’ view of memory.

Reading that has really hit home with me about how academics don’t have a good understanding of mnemonic technique. Funnily enough, they later mention rhymes and acronyms as mnemonic techniques, but not Shereshevsky’s techniques. Although the last point is bang-on, I just don’t agree with the implication that S has a videotape kind of memory.

I continue to be disappointed with the skill level of experts that end up writing books. What is one to do? I picked up the book to get an expert opinion! The topper was in the forward of a book about homelessness in which the mentor of the author reiterated the myth that the author had written the book to clear up! e.g. that there are 1 X 10 to the XX,XXX homeless people out there. This was over twenty years ago and other nonsense has taken over the trivia filled airways.


Here’s a related thread about Savantism and Memory Competitions, if anyone has any additional thoughts on the subject.

See this paper here, from way back in 1982, where researchers take a good look at S’s achievements. It’s headed up “Extraordinary feats of memory can be matched or surpassed by people with average memories that have been improved by training”.

Basically, the researchers debunk the idea that S had demonstrated anything under controlled conditions that couldn’t be achieved with a normal trained memory. While most of the descriptions of what S achieved are vague, there are some specific descriptions, such as saying that he could memorise 50 digits in about 3 minutes.

I wonder how many readers of this forum could memorise 50 digits in 3 minutes. I suspect it’s quite a lot.

Thanks for that link… very interesting.

Since you speak Russian, do you know of any materials about “S” in Russian that we might not know how to access? Maybe we could collaboratively do some original research. :slight_smile:

I will ask him and see if he would be willing to answer some questions. I think I also know of another synesthete mnemonist. If anyone has questions for people with synesthesia, please write them below or send me a private message.

I think the memory researchers think that, “I know the method of loci – these guys can’t fool me.” But they don’t realize that the method of loci is just one technique.

Have you tested him without his being able to see the instrument playing the note? I wish I could find someone with musical synesthesia to ask them some questions. :slight_smile:

I’ve done some research on S, but I need a Russian speaker to help.

Leontiev has written on Shereshevsky in his 1931 book Развитие памяти (Development of Memory), which is mentioned in Luria’s works.

As far as I’m aware, the relevant parts of “Development of Memory” have never been translated into English. There’s an online scanned copy available here in Russian:

There’s some material about S. on about page 240, including a table showing some memory performances, which I can understand, but my Russian isn’t good enough to translate it all.

Can any Russian speakers help? It would be very interesting to find out more about the mystery of Shereshevsky!

I posted a link to this thread on Facebook and Google+. If no one there responds, I might know a Russian speaker who could help.