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The curious case of Solomon Shereshevsky. A man who was capable of remembering everything.

Forgetting something was not a part of this Russian reporter's life but at the end of the day, the gift also became a curse for him.

The curious case of Solomon Shereshevsky. A man who was capable of remembering everything.
Cover image source: Pexels | Photo by meo

According to "the brain may clear away that old information in the process of forming new memories." However, Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian reporter would have possibly disagreed with this statement. Born at some point in 1886, he became a subject of interest for many researchers who credited that Shereshevsky had a perfect memory. The Russian newspaper reporter also called "S" or "Luria's S" caught the attention of a young researcher named Alexander Luria and became the main subject of his case study in 1968 that was titled "The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory."

Image Source: Amazon |
Image Source: Amazon | The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory

According to The New Yorker, S. was mostly oblivious to his sharp memory and thought mind worked the same way as everyone else. When the editor of the Moscow newspaper noticed that S. was never taking notes during morning staff meetings, he asked the reason. S. said that he didn't need to write down anything because he could remember it. To challenge him, the editor read from a newspaper at length and asked S. to repeat everything. To his surprise, S. did so verbatim. The editor sent him to Moscow’s Academy of Communist Education in 1929 to see a memory specialist.

Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Amel Uzunovic
Representative  Image Source: Pexels | Amel Uzunovic

That day, S. met Alexander Luria who went on to become one of the founding fathers of neuropsychology. The researcher gave S. several words and numerics in random order and more than fifteen years later, Luria discovered that S. could still remember those sequences of words and numbers. “I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory had no distinct limits,” Luria wrote in the famous case study. Luria also described how S. wanted to empty his mind of unwanted recollections and often wrote down things he wanted to forget on paper which he later burned to ashes.

But none of that affected his brain's capacity to memorize everything. The extraordinary case study on an extraordinary man became a psychological classic in both Russia and other countries where it was published in English. But S. also faced some pitfalls while navigating his daily life and certain cognitive deficiencies because of his excellent episodic memory as opposed to semantic memory. According to the study, Luria even monitored S. having a rare condition called synesthesia where every stimulus triggers every other sense in the human body. S. could taste words, see music, smell colors and even the sound of words affected his perception of reality.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | cottonbro studio
Representative Image Source: Pexels | cottonbro studio

According to Psychology Today, Luria conducted yet another experiment on S. and made him narrate the first lines of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" after reading it only once. S. studied the classic slowly and pronounced each word distinctly with slight pauses in between. Despite not speaking Italian or understanding any of it, S. could remember the passage a few days later. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. Mi ritrovai per uma selva oscura. Che la diritta via era smarrita. Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura" was the passage given to him by Luria which he perfectly recalled.

But as time went on, Luria also recorded in his monogram that there was a drawback to S.'s boundless mnemonic capacity. The gift of his inability to forget anything caused him great difficulties in life too. Luria reported that the memorable images that spontaneously came to S.’s mind prevented him from focusing on many tasks that required concentration. This was because the images in his mind tended to crowd together and generate more images and it often created confusion.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Johnmark Smith
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Johnmark Smith

Understanding a simple sentence required him to put in a lot of effort. However, at the end of the long observation period, S. strongly disputed Luria’s implication that he suffered from a mental pathology. In his notebook, Shereshevsky consented to a further series of experiments at Moscow’s Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System, in the hope that they would provide him with a clean bill of health. It is not clear if he was ever given one.

Shereshevsky's relationship with his researchers became distressed as they kept insisting that he had some "secret combination," he was hiding from them. S. turned to alcohol for respite. He passed away in 1958 from complications related to his alcoholism.

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