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Shereshevsky, Solomon

Category: Other spiritually gifted people

Most of what we know about Solomon Shereshevsky and his extraordinary abilities is due to the tireless scientific work of the late Professor Aleksandr R.Luria [professor of Psychology at the University of Moscow] whose work would also have gone unnoticed were it not for Oliver Sacks, who described his work in his books.

Professor A R Luria’s  book "The Mind of a Mnemonist", written in Russian and subsequently translated,  is the only real record we have of the man he identified only as "S," but who was one of the greatest mnemonists of all time and a man whom Luria knew and worked with for decades.

Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky (1886–1958) was a Russian journalist and mnemonist active in the 1920s. 

A mnemonist is a person who has perfect perception recall – in fact can access perceptions at ease, but whose memory is not as well developed.  This makes them a strange curiosity because although they appear to forget nothing,  their ‘intelligence’ if we can use such a word, or their powers of reasoning are no different to anyone else’s, occasionally they can be worse.   Shereshevsky had trouble, for example memorising information whose intended meaning differed from its literal one, as well as trouble recognizing faces, which he saw as "very changeable". He also occasionally had problems reading.

After having read the book, I came to the conclusion that he was able to access his perceptions via a strong ability to ‘index’ them from memory.  Thus he always started with a word or tag in memory as the trigger, but that then gave him access to the chunk of perceptions he wanted to recall.  His ‘mnemonic associations’ were so strong that he could recall them after many years.

 

"S" became a ‘side-show curiosity’ in that he earned his living from his abilities for a time, but his 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.  In the end he realised that the only way to forget was to destroy the index and to destroy the index you have to convince your subconscious to break the link.

Shereshevsky participated in many behavioral studies, most of them carried out by Luria, over a thirty-year time span. He met Luria after an anecdotal event in which he was told off for not taking any notes while attending a work meeting in the mid-1920s. To the astonishment of everyone there (and to his own also, due to his belief that everybody had such an ability to recall), he could recall the speech word by word. Over the years Shereshevsky was asked to memorize complex mathematical formulas, huge matrices and even poems in foreign languages and did so in a matter of minutes

 

To make matters more complex, Luria found that Shereshevsky  also had  synaesthesia,  in which the stimulation of one of his senses produced a reaction in every other.

For example, if Shereshevsky heard a musical tone played he would immediately see a colour, touch would trigger a taste sensation, and so on for each of the senses. The images that his synaesthesia produced usually aided him in memorizing. For example, when thinking about numbers he reported:

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.

All his wires were figuratively speaking crossed.  "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 colour feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste -- rather like that of a briny pickle ... You could hurt your hand on this.'

Kandinsky

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 synaesthesia of sound is the essence of poetry, too. Dante divided words into "pexa et hirsuta," combed and unkempt. S. used exactly the same words -- "prickly," or "smooth" -- for sounds, voices, words.

I suspect that few people even today realise how important a person Shereshevsky was in showing us the functions of the universe.

Every correspondence he described was telling us something about the coding of a function.  Just as when we play music through a computer image processor it will produce images, when music or sound was played through Shereshevsky’s processor he saw images

One time I went to buy some ice cream ... I walked over to the vendor and asked her what kind of ice cream she had. 'Fruit ice cream,' she said. But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn't bring myself to buy any ice cream after she had answered in that way ...

 

He was actually the ultimate ‘Rosetta stone’ for the Word.

From what I have been able to glean from the book, Solomon Shereshevsky had a damaged brain [brain damage], but the damage was very specific and quite unique in its effect.

I thoroughly recommend Prof. Luria's book. It is absorbing, and is a beautifully written sympathetic work in that he does not treat ‘S’ like a laboratory specimen but a rather treasured individual.  As a consequence, he probably gleaned far more about S himself.  Structurally, the opening section of the book analyses in some detail Shereshevsky’s extraordinary capacity for recall. The remainder of the book deals with Shereshevsky’s rather unique view of the world, his mental strengths and weaknesses, his control of behaviour and his personality. The result is a contribution to literature as well as to science.

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