Among the ‘memory athletes’, 1971

  • November 19, 2023
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Could a computer ever rival their astonishing feats? The idea seemed preposterous

‘Your memory could fill the Albert Hall,’ proclaimed the Observer on 21 March 1971, explaining that ‘a computer to perform even the simpler functions of the human brain would need to be at least as big as the Albert Hall.’ Now we outsource much of our memory to devices that slip in our back pockets, what can an exploration of extraordinary ‘memory athletes’ still tell us about how we remember?

‘Clare’ (a pseudonym) discovered her abilities were exceptional while eavesdropping on a Harvard researcher exploring the power of ‘eidetic’ imagery – perfect visual recall. ‘I think I can do that,’ she said. She was right: Dr Charles Stromeyer’s research showed she could ‘scan a card with 10,000 dots for one minute and recall it a few minutes later in full detail.’ Her ability to recall abstract visual patterns contrasted with the celebrated Russian ‘mnemonist’ Solomon Shereshevskii. Shereshevskii’s spectacularly intense synaesthesia both helped and hindered him in constructing the elaborate mental stories he used to remember ‘almost anything for almost any time’, from Dante’s Inferno to lengthy strings of random numbers.

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