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  • Akosua Biraa

The Making of Mind

the psychology laboratory

devoted to the study of one man

S’s phenomenal memory

he lives in a web of transactions

things he wished to forget

while conversing with him

found herself in a strange wonderland

experienced synesthetic reactions

of light and color

when he listened to someone’s voice

literal senses of images

concerned with meaning and usage

converted into “puffs of steam” or “splashes”

across the street like a pendulum

curiosity had been aroused

Russian: bezymyannaya, “nameless”

means the stream has no name

explore its low points

particular realm of “speculative” thought

what will there be after infinity?

absence of images

the experiments would offer

anything of particular note

This piece is composed solely out of phrases taken randomly from “The Mind of a Mnemonist: A little book about a vast memory”, written by A. R. Luria (1968) with a new foreword by Jerome Bruner (1987). This concise book totally blew my mind, when I read it for an “A” level Sociology class in 1986 or so. Its content had such a lasting impression on me that I bought myself a copy, to re-read, in 1999.

“The Mind of a Mnemonist” is a recounting of Luria’s findings from a scientific study carried out, over almost 30 years, on S, a man who had such a limitless memory; he never forgot anything—not even the experience of his own birth.

S’s infinite capacity for remembrance led him to become a professional mnemonist, undertaking a series of mind tests and memory performances. In addition, S’s intellectual idiosyncrasy was found to be as a consequence of synesthesia—his involuntary turning of sound (thus, words too) into color, imagery and even taste.

Luria, a professor of psychology at the University of Moscow, learnt that S’s graphic mode of thinking meant that he used an elaborate mechanism for recollecting details. For example, during his rounds in memory competitions, S would place information into a mental landscape through which he walked in order to retrieve whatever previously memorized information he was tasked to recall.

It is this persistent recall and astoundingly retentive memory that made S a great mnemonist for many years, but also a challenged individual who for example could not read and understand poetry—because of the competing and/or conflicting imagery that words generated in his mind.

Luria was my first entry into this fascinating field of neuropsychology, which includes the likes of Oliver Sacks (1985) and his similarly intriguing book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”—yet another absolutely captivating read to be shared later.

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