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Extraordinary Memorists

So far we have discussed memory improvement techniques available to the average person. Some people have truly extraordinary memories, showing that the human brain is capable of extremely powerful memory performance.

Why does Neisser say these individuals should be called memorists rather than mnemonists?

Brown and Deffenbacher (1975), in an article titled "Forgotten mnem­onists," pointed out that individuals with uncom­monly good memory had been identified on a regular basis for over 100 years. Such memory geniuses were typically described in a magazine or journal article then forgotten, an irony to which Brown and Deffenbacher alluded.

Neisser (1982) said these memory geniuses should be called memor­ists. Brown and Deffenbacher used the term mnemonists, but few of the memory experts used mnemonic systems.

An exception is Luria's mnemonist, who we will discuss first. He used the method of loci, and he has not been forgotten. He is the most frequently cited memorist in the memory literature.

Luria's Mnemonist

The Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria published a book called The Mind of a Mnemonist (pronounced NEE-mon-ist) translated into English in 1968. Luria found a man who showed essentially no forgetting in a variety of memory tests.

The man grew up in Latvia during World War I. The school system was very strict and emphasized memorization. Due to wartime conditions, the school had no paper or slates to give the children. There was no alternative to memoriza­tion.

How might Luria's mnemonist have been influenced by childhood events?

From an early age S. used mental imagery to remember things. As an adult, he was able to memorize long lists of items by taking a mental stroll down a familiar street and imagining the items in various locations along the street.

Later, to remember the items, he walked down the street using imagination and reported all the items in correct order. This is exactly like the method of loci, discussed earlier.

Here is how Luria described his first session with S.

I gave S. a series of words, then numbers, then letters... He would pause for a minute, as though searching for the word, but immediately after would be able to answer my questions and generally made no mistakes.

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. All he required was that there be a 3-4 second pause between each element in the series, and he had no difficulty reproducing whatever I gave him.

As the experimenter, I soon found myself in a state verging on utter confusion. An increase in the length of the series led to no noticeable increase in difficulty for S., and I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory had no distinct limits... (p.47)

What is synesthesia, and how did it help S remember things?

Further testing revealed that S. was unusual in another respect. He was a synesthete, a person who experiences crossovers from one sense to another.

A person with synesthesia sometimes hears colors or sees musical tones. Luria's subject received vivid visual images in reaction to speech sounds.

He remembered synesthesia occurring when he was three years old and heard a Hebrew prayer. He did not understand the words, but he saw the words "as puffs of steam or splashes." He said to Luria, "Even now I see these puffs or splashes when I hear certain sounds."

Here we have a clue to S's extraordinary memory ability. Words evoked im­ages for him naturally and easily. These images became keys to his memory.

Luria noted that S's visual images were not like those of ordinary people. They were "exceptionally vivid and stable" and he was able to "turn away" from them and "return" to them at will, to retrieve information.

Therefore, when given a series of items to memorize, S. could easily generate images and distribute them on a mental street or other familiar scene.

Prodigious Savants

Daniel Tammet of Broomfield, England, is another extraordinary memorist with synesthesia and durable imagery. He was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He is one of 100 or so autistic people around the world categorized as "prodigious savants" or people with unusual and spectacular skills.

For Daniel, numbers evoke colors, scenes, and even personalities. At one time, when bored, he worked out the values of powers of 2, all the way up to 2 to the 20th power (1,048,576), in his head. This resulted in "bright silvery sparks" in his visual imagination.

What are "prodigious savants"? How were Tammet's cognitive abilities similar to Luria's S?

Daniel's images, like those of Luria's mnemonist, can be retrieved and used as memory aids. In a public fund-raiser for an epilepsy foundation, Daniel recited from memory, without error, the value of pi to 22,514 digits. This took over five hours.

Johnson (2005) noted that other autistic savants have displayed prodigious feats of memory:

Autistic savants have displayed a wide range of talents, from reciting all nine volumes of Grove's Diction­ary Of Music to measuring exact distances with the naked eye. The blind American savant Leslie Lemke played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concer­to No. 1, after he heard it for the first time, and he never had so much as a piano lesson. And the British savant Stephen Wiltshire was able to draw a highly accurate map of the London skyline from memory after a single helicopter trip over the city.

Stephen Wiltshire performed a feat of prodigious memory for a Nissan com­mercial. Nissan had Stephen walk around their new car model (the Micra) and inspect it closely.

Then they put him in virtual reality gog­gles and showed him how to use the Tilt Brush app. He sketched an exact replica of the car.

I like the quote from Stephen at the end of the video. "It's easy for me to remember things I find interesting."

Eidetic Imagery and "Photographic Memory"

Most people have heard of photographic memory. People with photographic memories are called eidetikers (eye-DET-ik-ers). The image they preserve is called an eidetic image.

The very concept of eidetic imagery is controversial because the phenomenon is so rare. The only documented case was a young teacher at Harvard named Elizabeth (Stromeyer, 1970), and now there are doubts about that case.

What is eidetic imagery?

According to Stromeyer, Elizabeth could project complete sensory images onto a visual scene. For example, she could imagine a beard on somebody's face, and when she did so, she actually saw it.

The image was so vivid she could use it to obscure parts of her field of vision, if she wished. However, she never confused her memory images with real perception.

Strohmeyer wrote that he tested Elizabeth with a pair of dot patterns developed by Bela Julesz. Julesz used a computer to design random-dot patterns that would reveal a hidden figure when superimposed (set over each other).

Normally this would be done in a special instrument (a stereoscope) that revealed the hidden figure. But a person with truly photographic memory should be able to view the two images at different times and combine them to see the hidden figure.

Two images look like random dot fields
Random dot patterns like those from Julesz, used to test Elizabeth the eidetiker

Elizabeth looked at the left panel with her left eye, then (after 24 hours) looked at the right panel with her right eye. Stromeyer said she was able to combine the two from memory and "immediately" reported seeing the pattern hidden in the dots.

Neisser (1982) notes that Elizabeth is unlike other people called eidetikers in the psychology literature. The term originally described children who claimed to be able to see images for 3 or 4 minutes after viewing them.

These children were not much better than other children at describing details from the images. They were probably using ordinary visual memory.

In the years since Stromeyer published his story about Elizabeth, several factors led to skepticism about it. Not a single other person with such abilities has been located, although researchers searched for decades.

Memory savants such as Stephen Wiltshire do not reproduce exact replicas of the scenes or objects they memorize. They would fail the random dot pattern test.

Also, in a very unusual twist, Stromeyer married Elizabeth after the testing. They refused requests to replicate the tests.

If extraordinary claims require extra­ordinary evidence, the report about Elizabeth fails the test. The simplest explanation, by far, is that the original reports were not accurate.

Assimilation by Interest

Hunter (1977) told of a Professor Aitken who was known for his extraordinary memory. He amused students by calling out line numbers for poems from Virgil when students read a phrase from any of Virgil's poems.

In World War I Aitken achieved fame by providing his company commander with a complete list of men in the company, when the commander lost the sheets containing the company roll. Aitken was able to recite each man's name and serial number from memory.

In formal tests with psychologists, Aitken remembered lists of words for nearly 30 years with few errors. Yet he had no technique except finding things interesting.

How did Professor Aitken approach memorization? What was his secret?

Hunter described Aiken's approach as follows:

When given material that was "not too repellent" and asked to memorize it, he did not, as might be expected, go tense in concentration. He went noticeably still and relaxed.

When asked about this curious behavior, he explained that he was using a subterfuge ("assimilation by interest") on which, he discovered years ago, he could rely. He was relaxing by way of preparing to find interest in the material or "to let the properties of the material reveal themselves."

Aitken remarked on the trance-like quality of his "relaxation" but also described great clarity of thought during this state. The key seems to be a combination of relaxation, clarity, and interest.

What Do Exceptional Memorists Have in Common?

With the sole exception of Elizabeth the eidetiker, whose case is now in doubt, all the extraordinary memorists relied upon five things:

Interest. Aitken said, in describing the core of his memory technique, "Interest is the thing. Interest focuses the attention."

Imagery. With the possible exception of Professor Aitken, all used imagery.

A trancelike state of absorption. All seemed "cut off" from the outside world while remembering. They put themselves into deep states of concentration.

In the case of Luria's S., it was a 3 or 4 second pause; in the case of Professor Aiken, the state was described as "possessed" (i.e. fully aware, attentive) relaxation.

Letting the mind work on its own. None endorsed effort as important. Several commented on the importance of letting the mind work on its own, or "let the properties of the material reveal themselves," as Aitken put it.

Attention to the inner structure of events. The memorists all tune in on how the components of a scene or situation related to each other, so that the overall scene formed an entirely distinctive pattern.

This type of memory is not limited to specialized "memorists." Experts in any field can have a prodigious memory for detail, because they relate everything to an organized body of knowledge.

Athletes and coaches often show extraordinary memory for particular sporting events. They may remember a particular game in detail, years later.

Again: they attend to the inner structure of events. They see how various moves and strategies mesh into an interesting, memorable pattern.

Later, the coach or athlete can easily remember details of a contest. Remembering one part also helps to recall the other parts that were related to it, because it is all linked together into a meaningful whole


Brown, E. & Deffenbacher, K. (1975) Forgotten mnemonists. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 11, 342-349.

Hunter, I. M. L. (1977). An exceptional memory. British Journal of Psychology, 68, 155-164.

Johnson, R. (2005, February 11) A genius explains. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Luria, A. R. (L. Solotaroof, transl.) (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist. New York: Basic Books.

Neisser, U. (1982). Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts. San Francisco: Freeman.

Stromeyer, C. F. (1970, November). Eidetikers. Psychology Today, pp. 76-80.

Tammet, D. (2007) Born on a Blue Day. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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