The Case of Solomon Shereshevsky
Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky was born in the Russian village of Torzhok in 1896. At his father’s urging, Shereshevsky briefly attended music school with the goal of becoming a violinist, but a hearing impairment impeded his musical progress. Later, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Moscow.
Each morning the editor would meet with the staff and hand out assignments for the day.... The list of addresses and instructions was usually fairly long, and the editor noted with some surprise that S. never took notes. He was about to reproach the reporter for being inattentive when, at his urging, S. repeated the entire assignment word for word.31 The editor suggested that Shereshevsky undergo psychological testing, and thus, at age 29, Shereshevsky met Luria who was 24 years old and just embarking upon his career in psychology. The two would work together for almost 30 years.
As a young scientist, Alexander Romanovitch Luria’s initial impression of Shereshevsky was of “a rather disorganized and dull-witted person.” Shereshevsky was puzzled as to why he had been sent for testing and had no awareness that his memory was different from anyone else’s. In fact, Shereshevsky’s memory proved exceptional. According to Luria, Shereshevsky could “easily remember any number of words and digits” and “equally easily he memorizes whole pages from books on any subject and in any language.” He could accurately quote information from a decade earlier, including tables of numbers and strings of nonsense words. Luria turned from measuring S.’s memory capacity to studying how the presence of such a remarkably developed memory affected S.’s personality, behavior, and inner world. He devoted himself to “the study of one man,” to learn all that he could from this “experiment of nature.”
What Luria learned was that Shereshevsky’s memory differed from that of the vast majority of individuals; time did not erode his memories. Neither did a new stimulus affect his memory of an earlier one. In addition, his recall for the first item or the last item in a series was no better than his memory for other items on the list.
For memory tasks, Shershevsky relied primarily on visual imagery, augmented by synesthetic experiences. Anything Shereshevsky saw or heard reacted simultaneously with all of his senses… “to him any sound or thing has its own color, temperature, weight, shape and so on.” For Shereshevsky, “there was no distinct line, as there is for others of us, separating vision from hearing, or hearing from a sense of touch or taste.” Luria surmised that synesthetic perceptions were “a background for each recollection, furnishing him with additional, ‘extra’ information that would guarantee accurate recall.”
If Shereshevsky were given a few moments between items he was to remember, each item would summon a vivid image. He could then mentally distribute these images along a street conjured in his mind. Later, even years later, he need only return to the route, beginning at either end, to find the images where he had left them. Shereshevsky’s performance at recall was not perfect, but his errors were, invariably because he had initially placed the image “in an area that was poorly lit or in a spot where he would have trouble distinguishing the object from the background against which it had been set…” Thus, Luria noted that any omissions were errors of perception rather than of memory.
Shereshevsky’s visualizations allowed him to readily solve certain kinds of problems that others found difficult. However, his mode of experiencing the world also had its drawbacks. For example, Luria noted that “none of us have to deal with the problem of how to forget. In S.’s case, however, precisely the reverse was true.” Also, if given a table of numbers that was generated by a simple rule, Shereshevsky would not notice the underlying principle, although, for others, this was what made memory of the numbers possible. Because each word conjured a unique and vivid set of sensations, Shershevsky was especially troubled by synonyms, double-entendres, or metaphors. Abstract ideas such as “infinity” or “nothing” perplexed him. “In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing,” Shereshevsky said, “I have to see it.”
Shereshevsky also became confused reading or listening to a story if he did not have sufficient time to register each word; the flood of synesthetic associations would obscure the storyline. He had to work at avoiding verbosity and sticking to the point in communicating the complexity of his experiences. He also had a poor memory for faces, as each expression would give rise to a multitude of sensory experiences.
Luria also noted that Shereshevsky’s experiences were so vivid that the line between imagination and reality was blurred. He could speed his pulse by picturing himself running to catch a train; he could raise the temperature in one hand while imagining touching a hot stove and simultaneously lower the temperature in the other hand by imagining holding an ice cube. Shereshevsky would feel confused when something did not turn out the way he had expected, so real had been his envisioning. Luria noted that Shereshevsky “gave himself up to dreaming... far more than to functioning in life.”
Shereshevsky married, had one son, and worked in a variety of jobs, including: reporter, broker, vaudeville actor, efficiency expert, taxi driver, herbal therapist. He is best known for delighting public audiences with demonstrations of his remarkable memory and for being the subject of Luria’s important book.
Luria documented the exceptional memory and unusual personality of Solomon Shereshevsky in his 1968 publication, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory.
Solomon Shereshevsky died in Moscow in 1958 at the age of 62.
Importance of this case:
Shereshevsky’s exceptional mental capabilities stimulated interest in the neurobiology of memory and also in synesthesia. Luria’s description of S. is a reminder that superb cognitive abilities in one domain may come at the expense of another.
Solomon Shereshevsky’s remarkable memory became an example of the cognitive and social costs of a single, prodigious cognitive ability. While Luria did not address anatomic correlations, his extensive case report of S. expanded the field of scientific inquiry to include the effects of specific neuropsychiatric features on brain architecture.
Excerpted from: “Six Landmark Case Reports Essential for Neuropsychiatric Literacy”
Authors: Sheldon Benjamin, M.D., Lindsey MacGillivray, M.D., Ph.D., Barbara Schildkrout, M.D., Alexis Cohen-Oram, M.D., Margo D. Lauterbach, M.D., Leonard L. Levin, M.S. L.I.S., M.A.