Monday, September 22, 2008

...although there is at least one remarkable example of a real-life Funes

In his study of mnemonist Solomon-Veniaminovich Shereshevsky, the great Russian psychologist Alexander Luria reports that his subject was vexed by a most unusual problem. Namely, that ‘[t]he big question for him, and the most troublesome, was how he could learn to forget.’(1)

Haunted by a near-perfect recollection of events stretching back to his infancy, including the innumerable lists of numbers, foreign words and nonsense syllables that he had been fed over the years by his audiences, Shereshevsky found he had difficulties in isolating essential details and making generalizations that could help him to understand, as opposed to just memorise, even the simplest of stories. As his career progressed, so did the clutter in his mind increase, and such became his frustration that he began to develop forgetting techniques, in an ironic reversal of earlier attempts to improve his already remarkable mnemonic powers. His experiments including writing things down in the hope that his mind would let go of them. Seeing that this would not work, he resorted to discarding and then burning the slips of paper on which he had jotted down the things that he wished to forget. But
the ‘magical act of burning’ he tried proved of no use to him. And after he had burned a piece of paper with some numbers he wanted to forget and discovered he could still see traces of the numbers on the charred embers, he was desperate. Not even fire could wipe out the traces he wanted to obliterate!'(2)
Shereshevsky had something else in common with Funes. Throughout his study Luria insists that ‘S’ (as he calls him) had a very poor capacity to think logically, abstract, generalise, or understand figurative language – key ingredients for the high-level processing of information – and that, moreover, the more items he committed to memory, the more these faculties were impaired.

I know of no evidence that Borges knew specifically of Shereshevsky, although it seems most likely, given his profound life-long interest in the workings of memory, that he would have read about other mnemonists of his ilk.

Back to original post.

1 Alexander Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory, translated by Lynn Solotarof (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 55.
2 Ibid. p. 57

No comments: