A. R. (Aleksandr Romanovich) Luria

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One day in the 1920’s, a newspaper reporter walked into the laboratory of Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and asked him to test his memory, which he recently had been told was unusual. It was not unusual. It was uniquely and astoundingly retentive. Luria gave him very long strings of numbers, words, nonsense syllables and could not detect any limit to his ability to recall them, generally without mistake, even years later. (Luria studied S., as he identifies him, for thirty years.)

Luria discovers that the man had some interesting characteristics to his memory. He experienced synesthesia, i.e., the blending of sensations: a voice was a "crumbly, yellow voice." (p.24) S.’s memory was highly eidetic, i.e., visual, a characteristic not unique to him but which he used as a technique to memorize lists and details. (He had become a performing mnemonist.) It was also auditory. He had trouble remembering a word if its sound did not fit its meaning. The remainder of the section on his memory involves fascinating aspects of his having to learn how to forget and his methods of problem solving.

The remainder of the book is equally interesting since it relates the epiphenomena of S.’s prodigious memory: how he mentally saw everything in his past memory; how he was virtually paralyzed when it came to understanding poetry since metaphorical thinking was almost impossible for him, a mnemonist who lived in a world of unique particulars! As Luria wrote, "S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked." (p. 120)

S. could control his vital signs by his memory and, last but not least, this human experiment of nature had such a vivid imagination that, probably more than the most creative of us, he engaged in "magical thinking": "To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality. Often, if I imagine something is going to happen, it does. Take the time I began arguing with a friend that the cashier in the store was sure to give me too much change. I imagined it to myself in detail, and she actually did give me too much--change of 20 rubles instead of 10. Of course I realize it’s just chance, coincidence, but deep down I also think it’s because I saw it that way." (p. 146)

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Case Study


During the Battle of Smolensk in the Second Word War, a soldier named Zazetsky sustained a severe head wound, causing "massive damage to the left occipito-parietal region of his brain." This injury shattered his whole perceptual world. His memory, his visual fields, his bodily perception, even his knowledge of bodily functioning--all break into fragments, causing him to experience the world (and himself) as constantly shifting and unstable.

Zazetsky coped with this fragmentation by writing a journal of his thoughts and memories as they occurred, day after day, for 20 years. He then arranged and ordered these entries, in an attempt to reconstruct his lost "self." From over 3000 pages of this journal material, the neurologist A. R. Luria has constructed this extended case history from which emerges a remarkable portrait of Zazetsky as a determined and courageous human being. Zazetsky's first-person account is interspersed with comments and descriptions by Luria himself, explaining the relevant structure and function of the brain.

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