In May 1928, the young journalist S walked into the office of the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria and politely asked to have his memory tested. He had been sent by his boss, the editor of the newspaper where he worked.
Each morning, at the daily editorial meeting, his boss would dole out the day’s assignments to the roomful of reporters in a rapid stream of facts, contacts, and addresses that they would need to file their stories. All the reporters took copious notes, except one. S simply watched and listened.
One morning, fed up at the reporter’s apparent inattentiveness, the editor took S aside to lecture him about the need to take his job seriously. Did he think all that information was being read off each morning just because the editor liked to hear his own voice? Did he think he could report his stories without contacts? That he could simply reach out to people telepathically, without knowing their addresses? If he hoped to have any future in the world of newspaper journalism, he’d have to begin paying attention and jotting notes, the editor told him.
S stared at the editor blankly through his scolding and waited for him to finish. Then he calmly repeated back every detail of the morning meeting, word for word. The editor was floored. He didn’t know what to say. But S would later claim that he, S, felt the bigger shock. Until that moment, he said, he’d always assumed that it was perfectly normal for a person to remember everything.
Upon arriving at Luria’s office, S remained skeptical about his own uniqueness. “He wasn’t aware of any peculiarities in himself and couldn’t conceive of the idea that his memory differed from other people’s,” recalled the psychologist, who gave him a series of tests to evaluate his powers of recall.
Luria started by asking S to memorize a list of numbers, and listened in amazement as his shy subject recited back seventy digits, first forward and then backward. “It was of no consequence to him whether the series I gave him contained meaningful words or nonsense syllables, numbers or sounds; whether they were presented orally or in writing,” said Luria.
“All he required was that there be a three-to-four-second pause between each element in the series, and he had no difficulty reproducing whatever I gave him.” Luria gave S test after test, and kept getting the same result: The man was unstumpable.
“As the experimenter, I soon found myself in a state verging on utter confusion,” Luria recalled. “I simply had to admit that ... I had been unable to perform what one would think was the simplest task a psychologist can do: measure the capacity of an individual’s memory.”
Luria would go on to study S for the next thirty years, and would eventually write a book about him, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, that has become one of the most enduring classics in the literature of abnormal psychology.
S could memorize complex mathematical formulas without knowing any math, Italian poetry without speaking Italian, and even phrases of gobbledygook. But even more remarkable than the breadth of material he could commit to memory was the fact that his memories seemed never to degrade.
Joshua Foer. “Moonwalking With Einstein.” iBooks.