Memory Lessons from a Man Who Couldn’t Forget
Psychologists studied exceptional memories. What they learned can help you improve your own.
The history of memory research has some odd characters. One of the oddest is Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist, memory performer, and washed-up taxi driver who lived and died a hundred years ago.
Solomon had an average-rated intelligence but an astounding memory. He could remember complex mathematical formulas he didn’t understand, poems in foreign languages, and huge grids of numbers. And the memories were durable — when tested years later, he could still remember the same sequences of words and numbers, complete with unrelated details, like the clothes the researchers had been wearing when they tested him.
A quick introduction to synesthesia
The basis of Solomon’s incredible ability was synesthesia, a phenomenon where different sense experiences are fused together. For example, a person with synesthesia might see flashes of colored light when they hear certain sounds. Or they might see colored halos when they look at (or think about) different numbers. There are countless different types of synesthesia, and the effects range from mild to almost debilitating.
To better understand the difference between synesthesia and normal perception, take a look at this test that neuroscientists created to study one type of synesthesia:
Both pictures have the same numbers. The triangle of twos in the right-hand picture is obvious to everyone (well, except for red-green colorblind folks). The same triangle of twos in the left-hand picture is almost hidden — unless you have grapheme-color synesthesia, which makes different numbers appear with different overlays of color. If you do, the triangle of twos stands out from the background of fives just as clearly on the left as it does on the right.
Solomon Shereshevsky had an extremely rare form of synesthesia called fivefold synesthesia, which blends together the sensations of taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. Carrying on a conversation while eating an apple was almost unthinkable, because both activities generated waves of conflicting impressions.
At times, the condition was almost crippling. Because a single word could trigger a flood of memories and associations, Solomon sometimes struggled to read a book or carry on a meaningful conversation. Once, Solomon went to fetch ice cream, but after hearing the voice of an ice-cream seller (which gave him the vivid impression of black cinders bursting out of her mouth), he could no longer eat the ice cream.
What epic memories teach ordinary people
You might think that Solomon’s story is just a curiosity. After all, psychological research is dotted with cases of memories that transcend ordinary limits. But here’s an odd fact: many of these super-remembers have some sort of synesthesia. (Daniel Tammer, who memorized 22,000 digits of pi, is a modern example.) So what is it about synesthetes that makes some of them so staggeringly good at remembering things?
Today, scientists think that part of the answer is the way synesthesia links words, letters, numbers, and other details to powerful sensory experiences. In other words, it’s easy to forget 607 if it’s just a number, but harder to ignore it if it triggers a sequence of three vivid colors or images. This is interesting, because it means that understanding synesthesia can open a passageway to memory improvement for perfectly ordinary people. Though it’s impossible to force yourself to experience synesthesia, you can use some of the same visualization techniques that happen automatically in a synesthete’s brain to boost your own memory power.
Let’s take a quick look at two examples.
The method of loci
One of the best ways to remember new information is to tie it to something you know very well. And what do you know better than the rooms of your own home or the streets of your own neighborhood?
The method of loci (places) is an ancient oratorical method that was all the rage among Greek orators in classical times. The idea is to mentally store memories in a well known location, like the rooms of a building.
For example, imagine you want to remember a grocery list. You begin by picking a location. (Your own home is a great choice.) Next, take a moment to imagine yourself walking through this location, travelling from room to room. Make note of loci — handy places where you could put an object (for example, in the stove, under the bed, on top of your mounted moose head, and so on).
Now, repeat the same journey, but take a moment to pause in each room and stash away an item from the grocery list. For example, say the first item in the list is whole wheat flour. If you’ve chosen your house for your location, and you begin outside on the porch, you would look around for a place to put your bag of flour — say, in the mailbox next to your door. Then, step inside and into the next room, and look for somewhere to put the bananas. If you can think of combinations that produce striking imagery — for example, pouring the olive oil in your washing machine — you stand an even better chance of remembering it.
Legend has it that the method of loci was invented by a poet named Simonides in ancient Greece, after he stepped out during dinner just before the roof collapsed and killed the dignitaries inside. Simonides was able to list the dead by mentally walking through the seating arrangement.
Encoding details into imagery
The method of loci is just one visualization exercise that can help you commit a sequence objects to memory. But what about remember arbitrary numbers and letters?
The neuropsychologist who studied Solomon Shereshevsky documented his explanation of how he recognizes numbers:
“Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person; 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a moustache; 8 a very stout woman — a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his moustache.”
Solomon experienced strong involuntary associations. But ordinary people can create their own voluntary systems of association, and train them until they become almost automatic.
One of the simplest such systems is rhyming number pegs. It pairs each of the numbers from 1 to 10 with a vivid image based on a rhyme. For example, the number 9 is paired with wine. Here’s the full list:
- 1 = gun (visualize the first item being fired from a gun)
- 2 = zoo (visualize an association between the second item and a zoo (or your favorite zoo animal)
- 3 = tree (visualize the third item growing from a tree)
- 4 = door (visualize the fourth item behind a door)
- 5 = hive (visualize the fifth item associated with a hive or with bees)
- 6 = bricks (visualize the sixth item associated with bricks or a building)
- 7 = heaven (visualize the seventh item associated with heaven or an angel)
- 8 = plate (visualize the eight item on a plate as if it is food)
- 9 = wine (visualize a glass containing the ninth item)
- 10 = hen (visualize the tenth item associated with a chicken)
In order for the peg system to work, you must become very familiar with these ten images. Once you’ve committed them to memory, you can reuse them with any list by creating a vivid image. For example, with a grocery list you might visualize whole wheat flour being used as gunpowder (1), bananas being eaten by the monkeys at the zoo (2), and so on. The more bizarre the imagery is, the easier it is to remember. (Think of the cinders bursting from the mouth of Solomon Shereshevsky ice cream vendor.)
There are countless systems for encoding numbers and letters into images. Memory performers often use a variation of the major system, which makes it possible to learn very long numbers by converting the digits first into sounds, and then grouping the sounds into words, and then weaving the words into the sentences of a story.
Right now, this might all seem like a lot of effort (and no small amount of silliness) for a pretty small payoff. But the benefits are real. Modern science suggests that memory practice has only a modest improvement effect on short-term memory. But memory tricks, like the visualization and imagery-encoding techniques you just saw, make even stunning memory feats possible.
Consider the example of memory master Ed Cooke. In competition, Cooke can memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in minutes. He uses a combination of visualization (tying each card to a different celebrity) and the method of loci (meeting the celebrities as he walks through his imaginary house). But before you dismiss him as simply another freakishly talented human, consider this — Ed Cooke taught his technique to the journalist Joshua Foer, who went from average “where did I put my car keys?” forgetful to a winner at the 2006 U. S. Memory Championship.
As in most things, talent is a gift. But the race is won with technique.
If you’d like to learn more about the life of Solomon Shereshevsky, check out The Mind of a Mnemonist, a book by the psychologist who studied him. If you’re interested in reading Joshua Foer’s account of his journey from average remembering to competing in the U. S. Memory Championship, you can read his account in Moonwalking with Einstein.