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on September 7, 1998
I first encountered the name of A.R. Luria in the works of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, and am glad that several of Luria's works have been translated from Russian into English. The Mind of a Mnemonist is an insightful inquisition by Luria into a man he knew for several decades who had a literally limitless memory. The man - called 'S.' in the book - had an especially vivid synesthesia, whereby he converted what he saw or heard into vivid visual imagery, with powerful gustatory and auditory overtones as well. To forget things required an act of the will, and in some respects his prodigious memory was actually a hindrance for him. This short book is quite easy to read and fascinating enough to hold one's interest all the way through.
This book, Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (especially his chapter on "The Twins") or An Anthropologist on Mars (cf. the chapter "Prodigies"), and Donald Treffert's Extraordinary People: Understanding "Idiot Savants", all explore people whose memory is astonishingly accurate and sometimes limitless. These are fascinating and highly stimulating accounts that arouse our sense of wonder.
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on April 24, 2000
You will never think about your mind the same way. A. R. Luria's most famous subject was a young Russian man whose talent in life was to be able to recall anything -- literally *anything* -- that he set his mind to remembering. His talent was prodigious, and we are fortunate that a researcher as talented and humane as Luria found and studied him. This resulting volume is a beautiful account of how his memory worked, of a doctor-patient relationship that spanned decades, and of how what appeared to be a gift turned out to be a curse.
A beautiful book.
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on August 7, 2003
One of the positive side-effects of Oliver Sacks is that he has called attention in America to the works of the great Soviet psychiatrist Aleksandr R. Luria, many of which have been translated from Russian into English.
"The Mind of a Mnemonist" is a slim book that tells the story of a man identified only as "S," whom Luria knew and worked with for decades, a man who literally could not forget. Like other such bottomless memories, "S" was a side-show curiosity whose ability was a burden as much as a gift. Luria details the difficulties "S" had in grappling with daily life, where thinking clearly depends so much upon forgetting the useless.
I have no idea whether Borges had ever seen this book when he wrote "Funes the Memorious," which is a wonderful fictional account of just such a mind.
The book also takes a fascinating detour into the condition that somehow gave "S" his powers, synesthesia. People with synesthesia can "hear" colors and "see" sounds. Smells have textures. Shapes have sounds. This seems to be a natural condition in infancy, but most people lose it, except for remnants of this when people talk about "warm" colors or "cold" sounds.
The composer Alexander Scriabin was among those who retained a complex synesthetic sensitivity into adulthood. S. was another. "What a crumbly, yellow voice you have," he told one psychologist. For him, numbers had personality: "5 is absolutely complete and takes the form of a cone or a tower -- something substantial. ... 8 somehow has a naive quality, it's milky blue like lime ...." And Luria gives this account of an experiment: "Presented with a tone pitched at 2,000 cycles per second and having an amplitude of 113 decibels, S. said: 'It looks something like fireworks tinged with a pink-red hue. The strip of color feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste -- rather like that of a briny pickle ... You could hurt your hand on this.' "
Experiments were repeated over several days at the Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow, with dozens of tones, and the results were invariably the same. This synesthesia of sound is the essence of poetry, too. Dante divided words into "pexa et hirsuta," combed and unkempt (or "buttered and shaggy" in Ezra Pound's translation). S. used exactly the same words -- "prickly," or "smooth" -- for sounds, voices, words.
If you don't need one author to do all your thinking for you, if you can take what you read in one place and apply it to what you know from others, this book will expand your awareness of the human experience in an unforgettable way.
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on August 30, 2001
Referenced in numerous psychology and memory books is where persons might locate this book. The account of S. and his spectacular memory is almost legendary in the psychology, and memory community. This was my fortunate pleasure in locating the above reference in the following book: Your Memory How It Works and How To Improve It By Kenneth Higbee. A fine memory book. The Mind of a Mnemonist is not written as a fictional account of a person named "S". Non-fiction might be where the beauty lies. Aleksandr Romanovich Luria is a Russian psychologist. The mnemonist "S" is a Jewish man. S. is studied under a 30 year period. At the beginning of study, S. is under 30 yrs of age.
Luria catalogues his work very well. From the beginning of Luria's research then continuing to analyze S's memory then furthering to S's mind, behaviors, and then personality. Moreover, S. makes many of the comments of his own memory ability throughout this book. In analyzing S's memory, Luria leads the reader to deal with Synthesia of which S. possesses. This a integral part of S's phenomenal memory ability. S. would see splashes of color or puffs of steam regarding different sounds. In chapter 3 Luria conducted different sound tests of which analyzed S's Synthesia.
For more information regarding Synthesia, I would recommend Richard Cytowic's book "The Man Who Tasted Shapes". Luria also deals with S's ability to figure math problems. S has a great ability to easily solve certain math problems. His visualization capabilities are in high assistance with his ability here. Chapter 5 is most interesting: Luria comments on S's "Strong Points" and "Weak Points" regarding his memory. Strong points -as mentioned above- are his ability in visualizing math problems, visualization, graphic detail in story lines, and his efficiency ability. Weak points are S's reading ability. S. cannot read much material because words conjure up vivid images in which S. is forced to deal with. Abstract words, sentences, almost have no meaning to S. because of loss in the words meaning. Poetry was particularly difficult. "His control of his behavior" is another outstanding chapter by Luria. Luria comments on S's ability to control his body temperature by visualization. S. also has the ability to control his heartbeat by visualization. One of the most spectacular written accounts of which S. himself writes,"To me there's no great difference between the things I imagine an what exist in reality". This is a very powerful quotation and one can see what problems, or luxuries this may have. On one particular account, S. was supposed to wake up for school. He visualized the clock and reckoned there was more time before school. Then his mother is coming into the room and saying, "you haven't left yet". S's visualizations were completely real to himself. In addition, S. has graphic memories of infancy. I wanted to remark on some of the chapters and different subject areas in this book. As seen, there is a lot of fascinating work done here. What makes this book special is Aleksandr Romanovich Luria details, and allows S. to explain his own abilities. Many great memorists or savants in the past have seemed unable to accurately explain their memory technique. I have remarked on a few of the points in this book, there is much more.
The Mind of a Mnemonist is a fine example of a psychologist's account of memory ability and well written. I thank previous reviewers for there correct comments on this book.
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on October 1, 2010
The Mind of a Mnemonist is a case study by Alexander Luria, the famed Russian neuropsychologist, and his thirty year observation of Solomon Shereshevsky, or S. It has been extremely influential in the scientific field, as it attempts to humanize the subject who Luria was studying. Until this point in time, many books that tackled scientific subjects were written in a technical style, alienating casual readers and keeping their subjects at a distance. Luria, as explained in the foreword to The Mind of a Mnemonist, took a different approach. He wrote about S with a "romantic", literary style. In this review, I will assess how well Luria succeeded in fusing the technical aspects of his psychological studies to the literary aspect of character development. In my opinion, Luria gets bogged down in the technical aspects of describing S early on but still paints a poignant picture of a man struggling, and perhaps failing to cope with, circumstances beyond his control.

The Mind of a Mnemonist is divided into two broad parts. In this first section, which constitute Chapter 1, Introduction, Chapter 2, The Beginnings of the Research, and Chapter 3, His Memory, Luria describes in detail S and his abilities. Luria goes into great detail on the recollections and experiences of S in order to communicate the limits, or lack thereof, of S.'s abilities. In Chapters 4-7, His World, His Mind, His Control of Behavior, and His Personality, Luria beings to explore the effects of S.'s memory on his worldview. In both of these sections, Luria quotes extensively from S.'s recollections, describing stories that S has told him in order to illustrate points. Often these stories can be tedious, consisting of memory games that can go for two pages. However, Luria's prose is clear and concise. One way I would describe the book is equivalent to a peer-reviewed journal article. Chapter 1 and 2 are the introduction; Chapter 3 is the materials and methods as well as the data collection. While this area is not captivating, it is necessary. Finally, the last four chapters are his discussion that he draws from the data he has collected over his thirty years of research.

S. and his Memory

S is introduced to Luria and us as a journalist in the 1920's. The managing editor of his newspaper had been with his staff in a meeting and had reprimanded S for not writing down the notes. The editor was shocked when S was able to recall word for word the assignment. When he was introduced to Luria, Luria gave S some tests typical of memory studies in the past. For example, Luria asked him to memorize thirty, fifty, and seventy digit strings of numbers. What Luria found was that S had no limits on either his memory capacity or on the durability of his memory; he was able to recall sequences even years later. As a result, Luria gave up trying to test the limits of his memory and instead decided to focus on his personality instead.

Luria spends the rest of this section explaining the mechanism behind S.'s remarkable memory. S was a remarkable synesthete. Every sound he heard would register as a light, sound, taste, and touch. As a result, S had extra recall mechanisms. If he were to repeat a word incorrectly, it would not taste right, for example, and as a result he would know his mistake. S also had the ability to imprint images in his mind. Every sound he heard he would convert to an image, and then place it along a street. When asked to recall it, he would simply walk again down the same path and say the objects he passed. In fact, early on in the studies, this would sometimes lead S to omit words which he had placed in poorly lit areas along his path. Luria noted that therefore S had no limitations to his memory, but only occasionally to his perception. Finally, Luria discusses the drawbacks of S.'s memory. For example S, could not listen to whole passages, as the words he was visualizing in his head would all blur together.

His Resultant Personality

Luria discovered that S.'s synesthesia and visual imprinting affected his whole world. From an early age, S had trouble distinguishing between sounds, feelings, and colors. Throughout the next few chapters, Luria discusses S.'s resultant strengths and weaknesses resulting from his visualization of everything. One of S.'s strength includes spatial reasoning, where he could solve complicated word and logic problems simply by visualizing them rather than resorting to math. Another was S.'s vivid imagination. According to tests run by Luria, S could raise his heart rate to 100 simply by visualizing himself running.

However, Luria also noted that S.'s skill had many drawbacks. S, visualizing everything he saw as it was read, could not understand homonyms, metaphors, or abstract concepts. As a result, poetry was almost impossible for him to comprehend, and some literature gave him difficulty. Additionally, S had difficulty grasping main concepts, as he would focus on the details. While normal people gather information by remembering only important points, S.'s ability to remember everything sometimes led him swallowed in the details. Finally, in the last chapter, Luria describes S succumbing to his imaginations frequently. For example, S had the ability to "freeze time," by visualizing the clock hands not moving. As a result, he was perpetually tardy. He also often visualized himself performing some task but not actually completing it in real life. Luria goes as far as to say in a normal person, S would be diagnosed with split personalities. Finally, in the ultimate chapter, Luria tenderly discusses how S.'s vivid imagination left him believing some great destiny would eventually reach him.

Interesting Quotes

"[...] a Jewish boy who, having failed as a musician and as a journalist, had become a mnemonist, met with many prominent people, yet remained a somewhat anchorless person, living with the expectation that at any moment, something particularly fine was going to come his way."

"All this meant that I had to alter my plan and concentrate less on any attempt to measure the man's memory than on some way to provide a qualitative analysis of it."

Conclusion

In the end, Luria makes us feel sympathy for one man, a faceless subject who none of us will ever meet, by allowing us to identify with him. Every man struggles in the face of forces he cannot control; persistence in the faces of these challenges is a common theme in many literary works. In S, Luria creates a real-life protagonist, a man struggling with a rare skill that may be more curse than blessing. It is this dimension to Luria's book that makes it so eminently readable and makes the tedium of Chapter 3 a distant memory. I recommend this book, which I believe I widely available online, to anyone who is interested in neuroscience and enjoys narrative nonfiction such as that by Oliver Sacks.
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on September 23, 2004
If you're looking for a good overall introduction to synesthesia, this isn't it. (For this, see Richard Cytowic's book entitled, Synesthesia.) On the other hand, if you're looking for a first-hand account of a famous psychologist's interaction with a synesthete, then you're in good shape with Luria's book. In the first half of The Mind of a Mnemonist, Luria describes how he first learned about "S", a young Russian news reporter with an amazing memory. He then describes in a fair amount of detail, often using S's own descriptions, how S experienced the world. He also gives a rather detailed account (again, often reproducing S's own testimony) of both how S went about memorizing and recalling so many items of data, and where the boundaries of S's memorizing abilities were (e.g., S had a hard time recounting the gist of a story he'd heard read aloud). Because of this, the first half of the book can at times be dull and repetitive.

In the second half of the book, Luria focuses on the effects that synesthesia had on S's personality and overall quality of life. Here's where it gets a bit more interesting, and a bit sad at the same time. S could remember in detail events dating from the first year of his life *and* how he felt at the time (could you imagine being able to remember in detail every mistake your parents made or how it made you feel, from infancy onward?!?). Moreover, the combining of senses made it difficult for him to do two things at once (e.g. he couldn't eat ice cream and read at the same time because the flavor of the ice cream would drown out the sense of the words). Still, even these chapters (i.e., chapter four, "his world" and chapter five, "his mind") get a bit tedious. The final chapters treat S's control of his behavior and his personality. S had a rather amazing ability to raise or lower his body temperature in a particular limb (e.g. his left or right arm), raise his heartbeat, decrease the pain he felt when under the dentist's drill, and the like. However, living with synesthesia caused him to be quite a dreamer, often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

My guess is that psychology and psychiatry students with an interest in synesthesia will derive the most benefit from Luria's book. The rest of us are left with a rather mixed bag. Still, at just under 120 pages, The Mind of a Mnemonist doesn't require an enormous amount of time to read.

(On a bit of a side note, those who are curious about the real name of "S" can find it in the book...I don't know if they intended it to be there or not, but in one instance "S" divulges his identity.)
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Thirty years ago I remember this case being discussed in my physiological psychology class, a field in which I eventually went on to grad school, and I still remember the case of "S" to this day. Luria's little book became an instant classic in the neurological and memory literature and has probably never been surpassed as a case study of a uniquely retentive and creative memory talent. Recently, I came across a review of the book on the Literature, Arts, and Medicine database, and I thought it was such a nice little summary of the book that I wanted to include it here, since it's not that long, along with a few of my comments.

I have to mention one thing that the review didn't mention is the time the subject, known simply as S, who never seemed to forget anything, even years later, actually did seem to forget an item during Luria's many years of studying him. But how that happened tells us a lot about how his memory worked, which was very visual.

S used an interesting association system to memorize things. He used to walk the same way to school when he was a boy, which took him down various streets, back alleys, and buildings in town, and he would simply place the items he had been asked to remember along his path. To recall all the items in order, he would simply imagine himself walking along his familiar route, and he would see the objects he had been asked to remember as he went. The item he couldn't recall he had placed in a dark recess of a back alley he used for a shortcut and apparently it got lost in the darkness, which was why he couldn't see it. :-)

Here is the review from the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database:

****************************************************************************

One day in the 1920's, a newspaper reporter walked into the laboratory of Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and asked him to test his memory, which he recently had been told was unusual. It was not unusual. It was uniquely and astoundingly retentive. Luria gave him very long strings of numbers, words, nonsense syllables and could not detect any limit to his ability to recall them, generally without mistake, even years later. (Luria studied S., as he identifies him, for thirty years.)

Luria discovers that the man had some interesting characteristics to his memory. He experienced synesthesia, i.e., the blending of sensations: a voice was a "crumbly, yellow voice." (p.24) S.'s memory was highly eidetic, i.e., visual, a characteristic not unique to him but which he used as a technique to memorize lists and details. (He had become a performing mnemonist.) It was also auditory. He had trouble remembering a word if its sound did not fit its meaning. The remainder of the section on his memory involves fascinating aspects of his having to learn how to forget and his methods of problem solving.

The remainder of the book is equally interesting since it relates the epiphenomena of S.'s prodigious memory: how he mentally saw everything in his past memory; how he was virtually paralyzed when it came to understanding poetry since metaphorical thinking was almost impossible for him, a mnemonist who lived in a world of unique particulars! As Luria wrote, "S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked." (p. 120)

S. could control his vital signs by his memory and, last but not least, this human experiment of nature had such a vivid imagination that, probably more than the most creative of us, he engaged in "magical thinking": "To me there's no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality. Often, if I imagine something is going to happen, it does. Take the time I began arguing with a friend that the cashier in the store was sure to give me too much change. I imagined it to myself in detail, and she actually did give me too much--change of 20 rubles instead of 10. Of course I realize it's just chance, coincidence, but deep down I also think it's because I saw it that way." (p. 146) Commentary

An international giant in clinical neuropsychology and an inspiration for Oliver Sacks's narratives, Luria helped pioneer the study of the individual patient as interesting bridge between normal and abnormal psychological processes rather than studying animals in a maze, or groups of humans in an experimental setting. His "N of 1" close readings remain fascinating reading today, including The Man with a Shattered World (see this database).

S.'s incredible memory and all its attendant advantages and detriments recall Borges's short story, "Funes the Memorious (Funes el Memorioso)".
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This is an important little book. I knew about this book for decades but was inspired to read it after reading Dr. Oliver Sacks book, On the Move. Dr. Sacks spoke glowingly about Mnemonist so much so that I realized it was time for me to enjoy this book. Enjoy it I did. Dr. Luria was a genius who teased out the processes of this unusual patient. If you are interested in learning about human consciousness, this book will help you understand the beauty of the human mind.
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on February 9, 2014
I truly enjoyed reading this book about a man who thinks in pictures, smell and colors. Fascinating. Luria investigated the man's abilities to remember numbers but he also looked at the man's social and psychological life. I actually would like to know more. It is an eye opener to understanding that our minds work in so many different ways. If you are interested in this you might want to read Temple Grandin or if you are interested in her, you should also read this.
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on August 9, 2013
If it were not for Dr. Oliver Sacks of Awakenings fame, we would not know about Luria. Fortunately Sacks came across this free thinker when it comes to psychiatric case histories, and followed Luria's lead in providing much more than clinical facts on his subject. When you are through, you will know the patient as a person, with all his gifts and struggles.
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