Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Color of A Voice

"What a crumbly, yellow voice you have..."

I just finished Alexander Luria's short book, The Mind of a Mnemonist.  A "mnemonist" is someone with a remarkable memory: the person can remember an extraordinary number of names, dates, facts, lists, etc., and usually after only a brief exposure to them.

A mnemonist is distinct from someone who exhibits "hyperthymesia" (the premise behind the recent TV show "Unforgettable"), which occurs when a person apparently possesses a remarkable memory for personal and autobiographical details (dates, events, etc.).

In both cases, the individual's recall can span years.  As Luria details, the mnemonist Solomon Shreshevsky (the subject of his case study) was able to recall random lists of words he had been given decades earlier.

The question is, whether individuals with an extraordinary memory possess an "eidetic" (or, as it is more commonly phrased, "photographic") memory, or whether they have simply mastered elaborate mnemonic devices that enable them to remember things to a far greater extent than the rest of us.

(A mnemonic device is using ROY G. BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow or "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember the order of mathematical operations or "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" to remember the notes of the scale).

In the case of Luria's subject, Shreshevsky, the answer would seem to be... all of the above.  He typically visualized the items he needed to remember and over time, he developed elaborate mnemonic devices for remembering them.

Marti Pike, a synesthete, visualizes time as a series of overlapping, three-dimensional spirals. The spiral for hours varies in color along with the time; noon is bright white/yellow, while midnight is black. (Courtesy of The MIT Press. From Wednesday Is Indigo Blue by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, published by The MIT Press.) Source: http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=23504
As Luria discovered, Shreshevsky possessed a rare and extreme case of synesthesia.  Synesthetes experience an involuntary sensory or cognitive experience as a result of a prior sensory or cognitive stimulation.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a synesthete.  In Speak, Memory, he describes how certain words seemed to possess a certain color or tone.

In Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds (2001), Patricia Duffy describes her childhood experience of learning how to make an R out of a P: "I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line."

Solomon Shreshevsky appeared to have five-fold synesthesia: the stimulation of one sense provoked a stimulation of all of the others.  The epigraph to this post is a comment Shreshevsky once made to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky during a conversation.

Vygotsky seemed to have a very "crumbly, yellow voice."

In a sense (sorry, couldn't resist the pun), Shreshevsky's synesthesia helps to explain his remarkable memory.  He claimed that he could simply "see" the things he wanted to remember, and he eventually developed elaborate mnemonic devices in order to recall them.  He would simply line items up along a road, visualize the road, and then pick them up.  He would forget an item if he "put" it somewhere and subsequently didn't "see" it.

If this sounds cool, it is, of course, but it wasn't without its drawbacks.  Shreshevsky had a great deal of trouble holding down a job and often struck people as disorganized and not very intelligent.  His imagination was so strong and the secondary sensory experiences so vivid, he would often have trouble distinguishing what was reality. 

And although you might imagine that he would make a wonderful poet or creative writer--imagine the imagery he could create--in fact, his images were so elaborate and detailed that they really only made sense within the context of his own individual mind.  As Luria points out, poetry is imagery in service of a larger idea or concept, and Shreshevsky had a great deal of difficulty with abstract concepts.  

If you told him, "You should weigh your words before you speak," he would picture a scale with words on it and the balance tipping and a person speaking and he could tell you how the scale looked and the heaviness of the words and what the person speaking was wearing... and he couldn't figure out what you were trying to tell him.  

Similarly, he'd have difficulty figuring out the gist of a paragraph because he'd get bogged down in the details.  He'd read my last sentence and picture a paragraph and a bog and imagine the breeze and the smell and get caught up in the image--an image which had nothing, really, to do with the actual (abstract) point being made.

As a performing mnemonist, audiences would give him large tables of unrelated nonsense or numbers to memorize, and Shreshevsky developed an elaborate system for doing so. But when he was given the following table of numbers,

1 2 3 4
2 3 4 5
3 4 5 6
4 5 6 7
etc.

he proceeded to concentrate for several minutes and apply his mnemonic devices, in order to remember the sequence and recall it later (Luria, pg. 59).

Shreshevsky was unable to recognize larger patterns that are typically obvious to the rest of us.  As he himself remarked, "If I had been given the letters of the alphabet arranged in a similar order, I wouldn't have noticed their arrangement" (59-60).

He'd have trouble remembering faces, because people's expressions constantly changed.  Words would "bother" him and not make sense, if the sound of the word itself didn't seem to mesh with the sensory impression it gave him. 

And his day-to-day experiences, no matter how basic, were often complicated by his sensory reactions to the simplest things.  Thus, he describes how, in order to avoid feeling the "clanging" that the trolley car made "in his teeth" when he rode it, he decided to buy an ice cream and eat it during the ride, as a distraction.
I walked over to the vender and asked her what kind of ice cream she had.  "Fruit ice cream," she said.  But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn't bring myself to buy any ice cream after she'd answered that way... .(82)
So, at the end of the day, being an absent-minded professor who can enjoy the occasional ice cream and forget everything else, isn't really so bad after all.

Photo caption & credits: Marti Pike, a synesthete, visualizes time as a series of overlapping, three-dimensional spirals. The spiral for hours varies in color along with the time; noon is bright white/yellow, while midnight is black. (Courtesy of The MIT Press. From Wednesday Is Indigo Blue by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, published by The MIT Press.) Source: http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=23504

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