On Remembering Everything (by LL)

From: Lee liz (EAL195@psy.soton.ac.uk)
Date: Sat Feb 18 1995 - 21:39:17 GMT

What are the advantages and disadvantages of remembering everything?

There cannot be many people who would not opt for a better memory
than they have at present, the idea that one might never forget a
name, a date, a telephone number or, perhaps more pertinently, a
fact, must surely be attractive to most. Can there be any
disadvantages? The advantages seem obvious, for a start the enormous
amount of written memory aids in the form of directories, diaries
and the like could immediately be dispensed with. Foreign languages
would present no problem, notes taken in lectures would be a thing
of the past, mother-in-law's birthday would be recognised on time,
winning the local "pub quiz" would be assured, the advantages seem
endless. But what if everything, literally, were remembered? Luis
Borges fictitious character "Funes the Memorious" had such a memory,
he not only remembered every object seen, letter read, or word
spoken, he could not only recall "....every leaf of every tree of
every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or
imagined it". He noticed the minute changes around him which occur
with the passing of time, and not only noticed but remembered each
of them. He was incredulous at the idea of naming all four-legged
canine-type animals "dog" when there is such a diverse variety of
the creatures who are all individual, and when he saw each different
visual aspect of each dog as requiring a separate name. Funes could
recall every detail of a cloudy sky and compare this to the waves
made by an oar in the river, or the pattern on the cover of a book.
He could remember each of his dreams and recall them in all their
detail, the feat sometimes taking half a day, and now some idea of
the disadvantage of such a prodigious memory becomes apparent. But
Funes is a fiction.

It is within the capabilities of almost everyone, including those
with learning difficulties, to achieve "phenomenal mental prowess"
(Searleman and Herrmann, 1994), providing they are motivated enough
to spend enormous amounts of time practising or studying a
particular subject in detail. It has been suggested that the
unusual cases of idiot savants are no more than people with low
intelligence wishing to excel at something and therefore being
motivated to gain expertise by constant practice (Ericsson and
Faivre, quoted in Searleman and Herrmann). True mnemonists, or
memorists have the ability to remember lists of words, number or
pictures as an involuntary act. Cases such as Rajan Mahadevan, an
Indian psychology graduate entered the Guinness Book of World
Records in 1981 when he remembered the first 31,811digits of pi, he
could also recall any of the first 10,000 digits' positions in an
average of 12 seconds! He used mnemomic aids to help him such as
chunking groups of digits together, he also admitted to having an
extensive knowledge base which he used in associating numbers with
people or events. "Elizabeth" has the ability to remember a picture
consisting solely of dots (1 million of them!!), and then project
this onto a second picture of dots to reveal an image, this could be
after a time lapse of four hours and is an ability referred to as
eidetic imagery. Both Elizabeth and Rajan were limited to their
respective tasks, one notable mnemonist who was not so limited was
S.V. Shereshevski, referred to usually as "S". S was studied over a
period of nearly thirty years by A.R.Luria, his extraordinary talent
was examined and tested but left Luria confounded as it proved
impossible for him to actually measure S's memory. Instead Luria
looked at the way S was able to remember any amount of information
put in front of him, what limitations ( if any ) prevented S from
memorising, and what effects his ability had on his life and his
mind. S had come to Luria's laboratory to have his memory "tested" on
the recommendation of his employer, as a reporter he had attended
morning meetings where assignments were handed out for the day, on
spotting that S failed to take any notes, the editor was surprised
to hear that S could repeat back everything the editor had said with
no errors. Luria's first discovery was that there seemed no limit to
the capacity of S's memory, whether the material given was numbers,
words, meaningless syllables or sounds. Not only could S reproduce a
table of 50 numbers in any order or direction specified, he could
also do the same weeks, months or years later. Where tables of
numbers were concerned, S would see the table in front of him and be
able to just read off the numbers, any mistakes made were due to
either a number being poorly written, or because he had heard a
noise ( or someone had spoken) when he was trying to read the table.
This led Luria to investigate the idea that S was subject to
synaesthesia or where another sense is called into play such as
taste, vision or sight, for instance when Luria asked whether S
would remember his way back to the institute, S replied "How could
I possibly forget? After all, here's this fence. It has such a salty
taste and feels so rough; furthermore, it has such a sharp piercing
sound.." (Luria, 1968). This synaesthesia proved to be quite a
drawback and would inhibit S's ability considerably especially when
he changed career and became a professional mnemonist, hearing a
noise from the audience would be enough to make him see "splashes"
or "puffs of steam" which would obscure his ability to conjure up
images of the words he had to memorise. He could become so
preoccupied by the sound of a person's voice that what they were
saying did not register. In fact to enable him to remember with such
phenomenal success, the sequence had to be read at the right speed,
with time in between each item during which S would produce a mental
image of the word, or it's meaning, and he would find the task very
difficult with any other noise at the time. One of his methods for
remembering a list of words was to envisage himself walking down a
very familiar street, and distributing each of the items along the
way, to recall the items he merely retraced his steps, collecting
each of the deposited items along the way. Luria discovered that any
failure to recall material was a failure of perception rather than
memory, in that S had inadvertently "placed" an item against a
similar coloured background and it had therefore not stood out for
recognition and had not been retrieved. Nonsense syllables or
meaningless words were memorised by associating them with known
words, either by themselves or linked with two or three others, a
list of any kind could be committed to memory for retrieval at any
time in the future.

But what of the disadvantages? The ease with which S remembered
hundreds of words, objects or numbers on a daily basis contrasted
sharply with his inability to read poetry or literature in the way
most people would. Each word for S was represented by an image,
often with it's associated colour, sound or taste, he could not
dissociate the word as it was written, with the image he had of it.
This meant each word could have only one meaning, and that meaning
was associated with a specific range of other sensory perceptions,
he had great difficulty with words which had several meanings (e.g.
to wear a coat and to wear away), and with the idea that more than
one word can be used to describe the same object (e.g. baby,
infant). When reading poetry, each word of each line was imagined
in it's own right rather than as part of a sequence of words with
the author's meaning. As S recorded " The impression I got of the
poem was rather like what you'd get if you accidentally overheard a
conversation - fragments of images that made no sense.." In reading
a novel he created images of the environments within the story and
would compare them to other novels he had read, so that a character
from one novel might be seen in the situation of another novel
because the described environments of the to novels were similar.
But this is not a disadvantage of remembering everything per se, it
is more the fault of the particular method used to memorise in

Searleman and Herrmann (1994) have described how mnemonists can be
"created" by carefully planned practice schedules, the difference
between these and the natural mnemonists like S is the ability to
forget. Most people see how to remember as being difficult, how to
forget comes without trying, S had the opposite problem, once he had
memorised something, he could not forget it. There are many things
that one would rather forget because of their painful, embarrassing
or disturbing nature, if everything were remembered then this would
not be possible. From a practical point of view, remembering every
detail of ones' life in the way Borges' Funes remembered would
render one unable to function normally. Funes likened his memory to
a "garbage heap", whether he liked it or not he remembered all, the
trivial and the important indistinguishable. Similarly S found
himself unable to block tables of numbers from one "show" to the
next, he had to imagine himself covering what he didn't want to
remember with a large canvas, he even tried writing down what he
didn't want to remember so that he had no need to commit it to
memory, unfortunately in doing this he remembered the words as he
had written them down. Eventually he discovered that he could forget
things if he chose not to remember them!

The biggest disadvantage in remembering everything is the inability
to generalise, summarise and use abstracts, Luria documents S's
failure to recognise obvious patterns within number or word series he
was given, for instance the table below would be duly memorised and
be available for 2345 3456 4567 5678
recall in any given direction, but the pattern not recognised, each
number remembered in it's own right. In performing arithmetic
problems, the solution would be worked out using visual images of the
operations performed, rather than the abstract symbols usually
employed. Borges said of his character Funes "I suspect, however,
that he was not very capable of thought.", Luria said much the same
of S, seeing him trapped in a stage of cognitive development from
which he was unable to ascend to a higher level of understanding.
Concepts such as infinity, eternity and nothing were particularly
difficult for S because they could not be visualised, S told Luria "I
can only understand what I can visualise." he was unable to
understand anything which did not register physically, it either had
to be seen or tasted ( as he describes learning a piece of music or a
telephone number) . A further problem was that in concentrating on
producing visual forms of these concepts, images of his childhood
appeared, it seemed the harder he tried to achieve complex thought,
the more his mind was filled with unnecessary or unwanted images of
the past.

The innate ability of exceptional memory appears to be a handicap as
well as a blessing, not necessarily because of the memory itself,
but due to the techniques used in remembering, these are not
constructed deliberately, they arise out of the ability. Although S
lived a relatively normal life, getting married, having a child, he
held a succession of different jobs, his greatest difficulty
appeared one of not being able to differentiate reality from the
images which he constantly constructed to explain his world.


Luria A R (1968) The mind of a mnemonist. London Jonathan Cape Ltd

Searleman A and Herrmann D (1994) Memory from a broader perspective.
USA McGraw-Hill Inc.

Borges L Funes the memorious.

Have a great Xmas!

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