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Memory is Memorable: Coaching and Remembering

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My comment to an elderly Lowe’s employee: “You have a great memory!” [After he told me where a specific item was located in the Store.]

The employee’s comments: “Yes, but I can’t remember where I put it.”

 

Both the Lowe’s employee and I are like many people. In some areas we have great memories. In other areas we are completely lost. This is not the case with mnemonists. Many years ago, the noted Russian neuroscientist, Alexander Luria (1987) wrote about an exceptional man who had infinite memory. Called a “mnemonist”, this gentleman could not only recall a list of words that he was shown many years before, but also accurately recall the color of tie worn by the person offering him the list of words to learn.

In more recent years, we in America observed the performance of a mnemonist during one of the very popular evening Quiz shows ($64,000 Question). This man was Teddy Nadler who was employed as a civil service clerk in St. Louis Missouri. He was knowledgeable in many areas and was labeled at the time as someone with a “photographic” memory. Later, his prodigious capacity to remember things was attributed to his retention of “eidetic imagery.” We now would consider him, like Luria’s patient, to be a Mnemonist who could recall everything that he had read in books. Remarkable!

Challenges for the Mnemonist

Both Luria’ mnemonist and Teddy Nadler had something that most of us lack. They had a brain that retained memories. For most of us, the actual memories of what has occurred during our daily life is never directly stored. Rather these memories are organized, synthesized (and sometimes created) before being stored in our hippocampus. Much of this conversion occurs when we are asleep. Experiences have already been screened and modified before being stored in our short-term memory. During the night they are further modified, distilled and integrated with other memories before being stored for future use in our long-term memory system.

Only traumatizing (and fully delightful) experiences are stored directly in our amygdala (rather than in the hippocampus–the usual storage location) to be recalled in all of their vivid detail many years later. These “flash bulb” memories include those concerning the assassination of a president, the birth or death of someone who is close to us, or our own near-death automobile accident. There are memories that are critical for us to recall in great detail so that we can avoid them (as traumatic events) in the future or can always savor them when things get tough. These retained memories, in other words, are few in number, and directly related to the protective evolution of human beings. But, what about Luria’s mnemonist and Teddy Nadler? Do they have an evolutionary advantage or disadvantage?

It seems that both men found infinite memory to be more of a burden than a gift. Nadler was able to cobble shoes, but not much else. Luria’s mnemonist was unable to cope with much in his life—that is why he contacted Luria. Luria’ patient might be successful in performing in a carnival or (like Nadler) he might have found himself a successful participant on a Russian quiz show. The big problem for both this patient and Nadler is that they “could not see the forest through the trees.”

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