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Limits of the Mind

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How much can you jam into a human brain? In this segment, Jonah Lehrer tells us the stunning tale of Mr. S., a man whose memory seemed to have no limits. And Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg warns of the dark side of this gift. Then we visit the annual World Memory Championships, to meet expert brain stuffers. Competitor Ron White unveils some of the tricks he uses to memorize long strings of random numbers (hint: envision Albert Einstein riding a roller coaster).


Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated in error that Mr. S. remembered what his editor had assigned all the reporters at the newspaper. In A.R. Luria’s book, there is mention only of Mr. S. remembering his own assignments. We also inaccurately stated the rate at which Mr. S. could recall numbers. The actual rate was 50 numbers in 2.5-3 minutes. We also incorrectly stated that Mr. S. memorized Dante's “Inferno.” In fact, Mr. S. memorized only the first several stanzas. In addition, we depicted details of Mr. S.’s mnemonic performances without making clear that they were based in part on supposition. The audio has been adjusted to correct these facts and clarify our suppositions.

Comments [22]

zchen1111 from CCS

It is strange for this person to use visual images to represent numbers and use numbers to represent visual images. I think this will usually take much more time in translating to different "languages". However, the result is astonishing that he can not only remember things fast and also remember with accuracy. I have to say that this is a good way to memorize difficult list of numbers that people would like to challenge themselves.

Oct. 05 2015 08:06 AM
helen_jjjj from Christchurch, VA

I was always wondering why we are learning advanced mathematic. Reflecting on the concept of relationship between calculus and limitation, now I realized that the studying of limitation brought human mind to a new level and to see more clearly where our position is in the nature. Through so many studied and experiment such as what they mentioned in the radio, now we really need to realize the purpose of revolution, which is the reasons why we human exist. Nature gave us gift to become the most sophisticated species in the world, giving us message that the purpose of revolution is to develop the fittest one instead of the strongest one. Developing our potential is not equal to our potential is limitless. Under the nature’s arrangement, there is a limit for us human.

Oct. 05 2015 06:44 AM
Fiona0228 from Christchurch

It is really cool about this kinds of memory. You can remember everything without limit in your brain. No one knows the limits of the brain. These people can remember these incredible number immediately. They use the different ways to remember the number. I really like this skill, that is really easier to remember everything that I need but, you also still will remember the bad things that you want to forget. Nothing is prefect, just like the coin always have two sides. This is really thoughtful. I really like this idea about the limit of the mind.

Oct. 04 2015 11:17 PM

I was excited while listening to this podcast because of all the cool things Mr.S could do but then it got upsetting because they talked about the things he couldn't do and the bad effect his disease had on him. I think it's very unfortunate that he won't be able to have real relationships with the people he loves or really anyone for that matter because every conversation he has will lead to memories of other things which will take away from the situation at hand. The triggers really show a bad side of a good thing.

Oct. 04 2015 10:22 PM

I always dream about that I could have a super good memory. So that I can memory all the equations, words, languages and things that I want to memory. The world will become more clear for me But after I listen to the radio, it seems that have a super good memory is not that good. Your brain will go crazy if you memorize too many things. Also, the world starts to make no sense to you because you can relate all things together. People always dream about something that they do not have but something can make them seems "cool". However, once you have the "cool" thing you want will it still be cool as you expected?

Oct. 04 2015 09:53 PM

This audio lab surprised my a lot. It is hard to imagine that a person can remember a random number with 1,400 numbers in 24 seconds! I think everybody would like to remember something very quickly could be able to remember it forever. However, imagine that. If you have to remember everything happened around you automatically, whatever that is related to you or not, is that a tragedy? After I listened to this episode, I finally understand this.

Oct. 04 2015 05:52 PM

I have always been envy of those people who have super good memory. How intelligent would a person be when he could memorize every book he has read! But after listening to this episode, I came to understand their pain. It’s certainly fantastic to have the power to memorize everything they have seen or heard. However, when they talk to a person, memoires of every chat between them, and all the things relate to that person, and even all the faces that look familiar to this person would come up… It certainly requires the person with super memory to have the ability to live under a huge psychological pressure. One may well imagine that life like that would be painful.

Oct. 04 2015 05:13 PM
Clark Lauren from Sarasota

I just heard this piece on NPR, but with comments from 2010 it's obviously an oldie (but a goodie). You missed an important point of the Memory Championships that is significant for all of us who don't have freakish memories. In Joshua Foer's book "Moonwalking With Einstein" he describes how someone with an average memory can use techniques and train to have a better memory. In fact, as an exercise for writing this book, he trained his average mind for a year and won the U.S. Memory Championships.

Harry Lorayne, who was an occasional guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" used to entertain audiences by briefly meeting every member of the show's audience of 350 people and then repeating all the names back and identifying the various members 5 minutes later. He wrote "The Memory Book" in the 1970's and described how to use his techniques. His most important statement was that the mind works on VISUAL images. His techniques, even remembering numbers, are always about creating fanciful, meaningful visual images.

Oct. 21 2014 03:20 PM
Jessie Henshaw from NYC

Where you can't manage the complexity in your own mind, you can always trust nature's way of doing so,... and just scan the world for her continuities.

Oct. 16 2014 08:53 PM
TW from down the well

Why did you have to describe 'Mr. S' as "queer".
My comment isn't about political correctness. I have so many dead friends, even this summer alone, 4 'Queer' people I know committed suicide. I can't remember the last time I heard that word used like that, literally as a way to describe a person as abnormal. Deep down I know that things will never get better for us. I was distracted from hearing the rest of the piece, which I'm sure was otherwise a great show.

Sep. 02 2012 04:51 PM

if anybody is interested in something like this,they should read "moonwalking with einstein" with the author going through the training process of being a memory champion.

Mar. 05 2012 08:40 AM
Al Dormam from Boston

Also, to those curious, the source material of Luria's story is online, for those who read Russian:

Sep. 23 2011 03:06 PM
Ryan from Canada

Mr. S's full name was Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky. In case anyone is curious.

Mar. 02 2011 05:41 PM
Chris Bogardus from Cullowhee North Carolina

Enzymes, (and proteins), are very big complicated molecules that have very specific shapes.
Their shapes are formed during their manufacture by ribosomes. I doubt anyone really knows how this works. This would be a good project for anyone interested in incredible uses for human brains, have a person learn to figure out a protein's shape based on it's building blocks.

Jul. 20 2010 02:06 PM
Skipper from Palo Alto, California

Technology is allowing us to tap multi-sensory memory enhancement (somewhat like synaesthesia): Girton Labs Cambridge UK has MRI brain images of patients using its "SenseCam", an otherwise passive device that takes pictures when triggered by change in the environment, capturing momentary memory aids. [Lyndsay Williams]

The BBC video segment on the SenseCam and memory:

The scientists' interpretation of the brain imaging seems to indicate that vividness and clarity of recollection is significantly enhanced, even with only the fragmentary visual snapshots from the SenseCam. One can only imagine that a device that can also record smell, sound, humidity, temp, bio-statistics etc. could drastically alter the way we remember everyday life!

Given this seemingly inevitable technological direction, we might find that the limit of human memory will lift for *everyone* in the near future.

May. 14 2010 06:55 PM
Jim from NJ

My friends and family comment on my excellent memory. I often win trivia games. But my memory is nothing like Mr. S.'s or the folks in the memory contest.

Unfortunately, I can't easily choose what I'd prefer to remember. I remember all kinds of trivial facts, but important stuff can fade from my mind. For example, I always struggled in learning a foreign language, because I couldn't remember the words. I'm also a horrible speller. I can't remember whether the vowel should be an "i" or an "e".

Another problem is that I really only get "one shot" at a movie, TV show, book, etc. Once I've experienced it, it's pretty much there in my memory.

A friend of mine was once at a movie with her husband and about three quarters of the way through the movie, it occurred to her that she had already read the book.

Apr. 14 2010 09:31 AM
Tom Hannah from London

Memorising beautiful things such as poetry and music is good for thinking. Memorising random sequences is pointless and boring.

Apr. 14 2010 06:28 AM
Audrey from New York

I had exactly the same thought about Funes el Memorioso. Forgetting can be a gift.

Apr. 11 2010 02:00 AM
Isaac Murchie from Berkeley, CA

Listening to the man with the prodigious memory, Mr. S., and the similarities in his fate with that of the young Ireneo Funes in Jorge Luis Borges' "Funes el memorioso" ("Funes the Memorious"). In the story the teenaged boy dies drowning in the sea of his memories.

Apr. 09 2010 05:18 PM

I had a moment of getting the most from the "energy governor" once when I was young and at out jogging (for the first time) with my dad. I was not much of a runner and I was flagging quite a bit - gasping for air and holding the stitch in my side - by the the final third of our run, which was about a half mile all told, and not all of that flat.

The place I grew up was fairly rural, and I when I stopped to catch my breath I heard rustling in the bushes. I thought perhaps the sounds were made by one of my friend's dogs (my friend's house was across the street from where I stopped) so I started making kissy noises at it. However, when the face came out of the bushes and turned to look at me, it was not a dog but a *bear cub*.

I *flew* the rest of the way home, screaming all the way at the top of my lungs - just like a cartoon. Apparently the governor had quite a lot more energy than it was sharing *before* thoughts of mauling by an angry mother bear spurred it to be more generous.

Apr. 06 2010 09:17 PM
Skipper from Palo Alto, California

On Jad and Robert's musing about "making sense of the world as an act of negation"; I think this sentiment is part of the folk lore that defines the concept of wisdom. In essence, 'wisdom' is differentiated from 'intelligence' or 'knowledge' as our ability to recognize what is *not* important, thereby allowing us to act upon only the most relevant information.

There are many famous quotations to this effect. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. ... To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom."

Apr. 06 2010 03:47 AM
Skipper from Palo Alto, California

I love the choice of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Night Fight as musical backdrop for the memory competition.

Apr. 06 2010 02:40 AM

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