A Mnemonist is a person with exceptional memory. Such a person can remember unusually long lists of data like words, numbers, patterns etc. They have recollections that could date back to even infancy.
Individuals famed as Mnemonists have become part of popular myth, fiction, media, and subjects of scientific curiosity.
Several studies have been done on the ‘brain and behaviour’ of Mnemonists to understand the underlying cause of such remarkable memory. Such studies can prove to be helpful in treating mental disorders associated with memory impairment.
● Visualizing words
One of the most popular devices used by Mnemonists is visualizing words. When they hear or read a word, an image is immediately formed in their brain. This image is almost always vivid and gets permanently fixed in their brain. Hence the image can be reproduced whenever asked and the word is recalled.
This does not limit to words like ‘car’ or ‘house’ that actually form a picture. A mnemonist can form a mental image of numbers, letters or meaningless words. The following is quoted by a Mnemonist in the book “The Mind of a Mnemonist”:-
“Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3, a gloomy person.” (Luria 31).
This also means that while most of us ‘hear’ a word, a mnemonist can ‘see’ it too.
● Synesthetic Responses
Synesthesia is a mental condition where information meant to stimulate one of the senses, stimulates any of the other senses too. There are no distinct lines separating vision from hearing, or hearing from touch or taste.
For example, when they hear sounds, ‘lines’ or ‘colours’ would emerge in their minds. Every sound they hear would produce an experience of light, colour, taste or touch.
Some may experience this while listening to someone’s voice too. From the book ‘The mind of a Mnemonist’,
““what a crumbly, yellow voice you have,” he once told L.S Vygotsky while conversing with him.” (Luria 24).
Numbers can take visual forms too like when they think of say ‘2’, a white rectangle could form in their head.
Different mnemonists have varying degrees of synesthesia and they help the individual to recognize a word not only by the image it produces, but by the overall complex of sensations it arouses.
● Eldotechnique (Eidetic imagery)
Mnemonists are exceptionally skilled in breaking down material into meaningful images. This device relies exclusively on image formation.
Eidetic imagery is the ability to visualize an image so detailed and clear, it’s as if the object is still being perceived.
Such people can describe the image as if it is still present, not like they are recalling a past event. They behave as if they are actually seeing the item at the moment.
The Italian polymath, Leonardo da Vinci and the famous mathematician Leonard Euler, both were known to possess photographic memory.
Swami Vivekananda is also believed to have eidetic memory as he could memorize a book just by going through it for a single time.
● Mind Palace (Method of Loci)
In this technique, the individual thinks of a place like a building, street or a house. He places the data (items or words) as he “walks” through these loci. To remember the information, all he does is take a “mental walk” again and looks at the items he had placed earlier.
For example this technique was used by Solomon Shereshevsky. He would often use the Gorky Street, the street he lived on. When given a set of words, he would walk down the street, placing each item at a specific corner. In order to recall the words, he would simply take a stroll down the street, “have a look at” the item and word would be reproduced. (Luria 32).
Case study: Solomon Shereshevsky (S)
Alexander Luria documented the exceptional memory of Solomon Shereshevsky in his 1968 publication, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory. His story prompted renewed interest in the study of the human brain and its cognitive capabilities.
Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky, born in Torzhok, Russia in 1886, used to work as a newspaper reporter in Moscow. The editor of the newspaper noticed that S could remember long lists of addresses and instructions word for word. He suggested he underwent psychological testing, and thus, Shereshevsky met Luria
Solomon V. Shereshevsky: The great Russian mnemonist. Science Direct, https://ars.els-cdn.com/content/image/1-s2.0-S0010945213001354-fx1.jpg
Shereshevsky could remember any number of words and digits, even whole pages from books. Luria studied how such remarkable memory affected S.’s personality, behaviour, and inner world.
Shereshevsky could form a vivid image of an item and mentally distribute these images on a street conjured in his mind. He would return to the route and find the images where he had left them – the method of Loci. His synesthetic perceptions, also furnished ‘extra’ information, guaranteeing accurate recall.
However, this ability came with drawbacks. Because each word formed unique sensations, he was troubled by synonyms, double-entendres, or metaphors. Abstract ideas like “infinity” or “nothing” perplexed him. He also had a poor memory for faces, as each expression induced multiple sensations.
Shereshevsky married, had a son, and worked a variety of jobs. He is best known for pleasing audiences with demonstrations of his remarkable memory. Solomon Shereshevsky died in Moscow in 1958. His exceptional memory invigorated interest in the neurobiology of memory and synesthesia.
The Brain of Mnemonists
While nothing can be said with certainty about the differences in the brains of people with high memory, studies have been done to understand this complex nature.
Brain imaging studies have shown that in mnemonists, different areas of the brain are activated when retrieving and storing memories, depending on the type of memory and the mnemonist.
Brain activities of superior memorists from the World Memory Championship were analysed and they showed increased brain activity in regions associated with spatial memory. The differences in brain activity were accountable to the unique strategies used.
A person able to recall the digits of the constant π, showed increased brain activities in several regions. This was when he used the method of loci. But different brain regions were activated when he had to recall unfamiliar random digits.
By analysing the brain activity of mnemonists, researchers have been able to pinpoint a meaningful cognitive process underlying the behaviour.
Hyperthymesia or Highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) is a neurological condition in which the person can remember enormous quantities of their life in great detail.
Unlike most mnemonists who could describe the strategies by which they could retain material, people with HSAM do not have any such explanation i.e., they do not use mnemonic devices to remember long strings of information.
Some research suggests that hyperthymesia may be due to biological, genetic, or psychological causes. However, more studies are being done to gain a better understanding of this condition.
Gifted or learnt?
There is some dispute whether a mnemonist is born or made. Some believe that powers of memorization are innate. This view has been borne out by studies on people with conditions such as autism and hyperthymesia.
Others believe that it is possible to train the brain and become a mnemonist. A lot of World Memory Champions have claimed to have used methods and strategies to remember voluminous material.
Then there are people who use mind techniques and are also gifted with the ability to some extent. Solomon Shereshevsky was able to create multiple sensations for a word and also reported to use the method of loci.
Can anyone be a mnemonist?
While some Mnemonists claim to have been born with extraordinary powers, one can learn the practice of remembering information. This can be done by using several mnemonic devices.
Visual imagery is a great way to memorize items. It’s often used to memorize meaningful words by creating their corresponding mental images.
Method of Loci or Mind Palace as mentioned above works effectively to remember long lists of data by placing them in the mental route taken by the subject.
Mnemonics is a famous method in which the first letter of each word is combined into a new word. For example: VIBGYOR to remember the colours of the Rainbow.
Mnemonists, people with exceptional memory have wowed people for centuries. While some use mnemonic devices to remember immense material, others are known to be gifted with the ability. This has caused curiosity among scientists around the world to study the brain and behaviour of such individuals.
While we can learn some techniques and delight those around us, the hope is that one day these studies help us cure diseases related to, or causing memory impairment, like Alzheimer's or dementia.
Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology
St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad
1.Luria, A.R. The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory. Translated by Lynn Solotaroff, Foreword by Jerome S. Bruner, Harvard University Press, 1987.
2. “Mnemonist.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 19 December 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mnemonist&oldid=1061011291
3. “Mnemonist.” Fandom, Fandom, Inc., 1 July 2015, https://psychology.fandom.com/wiki/Mnemonist
4.McMahon, Mary “What is a Mnemonist” wisegeek, 12 January 2010 https://www.wise-geek.com/what-is-a-mnemonist.htm
5.“Eidetic Memory” Wikipedia, 29 November 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eidetic_memory&oldid=1057691166
6. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “eidetic imagery” Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 February 2020, https://www.britannica.com/science/eidetic-imagery
7. “List of people claimed to possess an eidetic memory” Wikipedia, 28 November 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_people_claimed_to_possess_an_eidetic_memory&oldid=1057519897
8. Benjamin, Sheldon, et al. “Six Landmark Case Reports Essential for Neuropsychiatric Literacy.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, vol. 30, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 279–90. neuro.psychiatryonline.org (Atypon), https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.18020027
9. Image Source: Solomon V. Shereshevsky: The great Russian mnemonist. Science Direct, https://ars.els-cdn.com/content/image/1-s2.0-S0010945213001354-fx1.jpg
10. Yoon, Jong-Sung et al. “Neural Evidence of Superior Memory: How to Capture Brain Activities of Encoding Processes Underlying Superior Memory.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 13 310. 4 September 2019, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2019.00310
11. Wikipedia contributors. "Hyperthymesia." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 December 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hyperthymesia&oldid=1059376450
12. Morales-Brown, Louise. “Hyperthymesia: What is it?”. Medical News Today, 9 June 2020, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/hyperthymesia#causes