Monday, 1 December 2008

Review: "The Mind of a Mnemonist" by A. R. Luria

I finally got a chance to read "The Mind of a Mnemonist" in the midst of a business trip. As with "The Man with a Shattered World", also a later work of Luria, "The Mind of a Mnemonist" is a case study following one of Luria's subjects over a large portion of his life. Where "The Man with a Shattered World" detailed the life of a man with severe visual and memory defects, "The Mind of a Mnemonist" details the life of a man whose prodigious visual memory (and imagination) are both his greatest strength and weakness.

There are memory-improving techniques that urge students to train themselves to construct mental landscapes, patterns of items connected to each other in space, each of which connects with and leads to the remembrance of the next item. "S" (the subject of this book) easily creates these types of mental landscapes, but in greater detail and over a greater area than seems possible. He can walk through and recall precise details in immense landscapes even decades later.

In his story "Funes the Memorious", Borges prefaces his use of the word "memory" by saying that we ordinary mortals hardly deserve to use the word compared to the subject of his story. With apologies, "S" also lays claim to that word in a way very close to that of Funes. In addition to memory, "S" owns the word "visualisation" in a way that few of us will ever do. Three words into reading a novel, "S" has already established the time of day, the architecture of the house, the clothing of the characters, their appearance, all far out of proportion to what is described. This owes in part to his synesthesia, which allows the sound of words to spill over into additional sights, smells and sensations that colour his perception.

What is remarkable about this story is that "S" is very nearly a prisoner of his visualisations. As a child, he was late for school because he would either hold the memory of the clock as it read at half seven (and thus think he had plenty of time to prepare) until it was after nine, or because he would imagine his doppelganger dressing and going to school, and did not realise that in reality he had taken no action.

His life is a waking dream, filled with rich but nonsensical images. People's faces seem incomprehensible, because he cannot recognise some kernel of their appearance as being consistent between all the angles and lighting conditions that are possible. When compared with utterly faithful imagined worlds and utterly faithful (or perhaps perfectly well imagined) worlds of memory, the present itself seems somehow dimmed to "S", like only one possible channel to which the mind can be tuned.

When I finished this book, I was sitting in a pub I had visited perhaps a year and a half earlier. Looking across at the sea on a dark winter's night, I was able to recall (dimly) the view in summer, and each of the individuals who had been with me the last time I was at the pub. It seems to me that my recollections were based on a series of abstractions. The place itself was recreated from multiple observations over a handful of visits that summer. The people were recalled as they appeared when I saw them over the course of days or even months, and generally in terms of key details (their faces, their hair, a particular expression, a typical cut of shirt or trouser). This ability to generalise over varied experiences and to store only salient details is key to functioning in daily life.

We do not need to recall what our coworkers looked like on a particular day last summer to interact with them today. We only need to be able to identify them today based on the key details of their appearance. It is not necessary for our daily lives to recall where we parked five days ago in precise detail. We only need to remember where we parked today, and in fact are better served if little trace of the previous location lingers in memory. So what can we learn from a mnemonist, whose experience is structured so differently from our own? Looking beyond the limits of what we are likely to experience helps us question the role of memory, nostalgia and fantasy in the life of a fully functioning adult.

This is a well-written and utterly engaging book, and a very quick read. Very highly recommended.