Solomon Shereshevsky: History’s Most Legendary Memory?

Solomon Shereshevsky feature image headshotPeople often say that Solomon Shereshevsky had a perfect memory.

But is this true?

Or might there be more to the story?

Make no mistake, the man demonstrate incredibly memory feats.

But when we look past the news bites and buzzwords, there are useful tidbits we can learn and use to our advantage.

So if you’re interested in the truth about Solomon Shereshevsky and how his legendary memory can help you remember more in everyday life, let’s get started.

Who Was Solomon Shereshevsky?

Born 1886 in Russia, Solomon Shereshevsky held dozens of jobs over his lifetime. He studied music, performed as a vaudeville actor, served as an efficiency expert, a herbalist and worked as a mnemonist. He only became famous as “S” or “S. Luria” following the 1968 publication of Alexander Luria’s book, The Mind of a Mnemonist.

What’s a mnemonist?

In a phrase, it’s someone who uses memory techniques, either to demonstrate raw memory skill, teach mnemonics or both.

And that’s where the confusion with Shereshevsky begins because many people don’t realize that Shereshevsky’s memory gifts were a mix of a congential mental condition and mnemonic technique.

Just What Kind of Memory Was Shereshevsky Capable Of?

According to Luria (pictured above), he “sytematically observed” Shereshevsky for thirty years. He was interested more in how Shereshevsky’s experience of memory affected his personality than the experience of so-called photographic memory or eidetic memory itself.

In other words, Luria was interested in what he called “the entire structure of a person’s identity.”

Luria’s first observations of Shershevsky were that his subject could:

  • Repeat lists of words that that he either heard or read
  • Recall up to 70 numbers
  • Rarely make any mistakes even with Luria increased the amount of information
  • Seemed to have incredible long-term retention of the information

Luria also observed that Shereshevsky’s memory abilities related to his synesthesia and a kind of hyperphantasia.

Although we can’t know exactly why Shereshevsky experienced memory to this degree of multi-sensory and accuracy, scientists have found possible explanations in recent years. For example, extraordinary memory might be the result of “ability-enhancing lesions” in the brains of some individuals.

The Nuance & the Science Behind Solomon Shereshevsky’s
Seemingly “Impossible” Memory

One of the issues we see in Shereshevsky’s story is that people only partly remember what Luria told us about him.

Although his memory was indeed extraordinary, it’s clear that Shereshevsky was a mnemonist. He used memory techniques similar to mnemonic images paired with the Memory Palace, the journey method or the method of loci.

After describing how Shereshevsky’s mind would “transform” information into “colored splotches, lines or splashes,” Luria gives a Memory Palace example:

When S. read through a long series of words, each word would elicit a graphic image. And since the series was fairly long, he had to find some way of distributing these images of his in a mental row or sequence. Most often (and this habit persisted throughout his life), he would ‘distribute’ them along some roadway or street he visualized in his mind.

According to Luria, these “mental walks” reappeared as mental imagery in Shereshevsky’s mind when asked to recall the information put to him.

In other words, Shereshevsky may have had a biological advantage, but he was unquestionably using memory techniques to enhance this advantage.

For this reason, researcher Gerd Gigerenzer has praised Luria’s n=1 analysis of Shereshevsky because it helps us avoid “the replication delusion.” Luria’s close study got to the core of Shereshevsky’s actual daily practice of using his memory in ways that larger studes of people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory often miss.

How To Model Shereshevsky’s Memory Techniques

Although it’s unlikely you’ll be able to experience vivid visualization in quite the same was a person with Shereshevsky’s condition, or the like, you can use the same techniques yourself.

Here’s how:

  • Commit to learning as much about mnemonics as you can
  • Develop multiple mnemonic devices for words, numbers and symbols
  • Practice with information you genuinely want to remember
  • Continue to study and practice memory techniques over time
  • Use reflective thinking to improve your skills

This final point about reflection is important for one major reason. Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance memory master once said that anyone who thinks long and hard enough about memory techniques will come up with the same mnemonic strategies. Robert Fludd made a similar observation.

Although we can’t know for sure that Shereshevsky didn’t read a book about mnemonics, he didn’t have to in order to logically conclude that pairing associations with locations stimulates remembrance.

If you’d like more help on developing the kind of Memory Palace journeys Shereshevsky used, please sign up for my Free Memory Improvement Course now:

Free Memory Improvement Course

Again, it won’t lead you to the kinds of mental experience Luria describes in The Mind of a Mnemonist.

But it will help you avoid the hours of abstract thinking others have had to spend in order to replicate Shereshevsky’s skills.

And there’s no doubt about it:

People without brain lesions have replicated Shereshevsky’s incredible memory. I’ve been honored to interview many of them on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast.

And I know you can remember anything you put your heart to as well.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to develop the mind of a mnemonist for yourself?

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

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