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Reading :: The Mind of a Mnemonist

Posted by: on Apr 26, 2016 | No Comments
The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory
By A.R. Luria

As mentioned in the previous review, A.R. Luria began publishing quite a bit after Stalin's death. Beyond his scholarly work, he also wrote two popular books that became internationally known: The Man with a Shattered World and this one, The Mind of a Mnemonist.

A mnemonist, of course, is someone who remembers things—and the subject of this book becomes well known as a performer who is asked to memorize tables of numbers, details, and nonsense syllables. But we meet him when he is a humble journalist whose editor sends him to see Vygotsky and Luria. The editor noticed that this journalist would never write down the details of his assignments, but always seemed to remember them. And the journalist was puzzled that this should be so remarkable.

Luria recounts testing the man's memory with tables of numbers, growing more astonished as he repeated the numbers back effortlessly—not just right to left, but also left to right, down to up, and diagonally. What's even more remarkable is that decades later the man could call back the same tables from those initial tests; his memories did not seem to decay.

What made this man's memory so different? Based on extended testing and interviews, Luria surmises that it's partly due to the man's pronounced synesthesia and partly to the fact that he processes memories as detailed visual images. He also developed techniques that leveraged these unique natural abilities.

But, Luria adds, this ability also shaped the man's life and personality. He was "disheveled," often "disorganized," and had trouble relating to other people.

Like The Man with a Shattered World, this book provides a sympathetic portrait of an extraordinary person and allows us to better understand the individual as a developed personality. It's a fun, fast read that will make you think differently about memory and thought.