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Let me describe 2 interesting cases :

  • Solomon Shereshevsky (Luria, 1968 - the Mind of a Mnemonist) had an almost perfect literal memory. He remembers strings of hundreds of digits for years after only having read them once. I would like to explain this by his awesome synesthesia: everything is encoded in so many ways that everything is considered as new, and so a new memory trace is formed to remember it (we know that "first time" experiences are well remembered (Robinson, 1992), as are distinctive features (Hunt & Worthen, 2006)). Shereshevsky's gift was compensated by big difficulties recognizing (visages, which he considered extremely changing) and had basically no understanding of abstraction: metaphor, figurative language.

  • Kim Peek, the "real Rainman", had a rote knowledge of 6000 books, yet was unable to extract abstract information from this knowledge (his memory was like a computer's, basically). He was also unable to understand metaphors.

So, it seems to me that abstraction is incompatible with literal memory: we have to forget some concrete features to get the abstract essence. Is there any scientific literature about an incompatibility between abstraction and rote memorization?

share|improve this question
What happens during information processing in the average human being? The filtered (for irrelevancy) sensory input is analyzed in relation to the stored knowledge, a meaning is extracted (abstraction), the sensory memory is cleared (forgotten), the meaning is stored/further processed/stimulates physiology etc. That is why it is so difficult for an average human being to memorize raw input. Obviously some people, e.g. autists, are unable to extract the meaning and must take the information literally. That's why they store the "raw", unprocessed info, thus they have a "photographic memory". – what Sep 8 '13 at 18:12
I don't believe in photographic memory, nor do I believe that autists have something special about memory. Most of us have a great memory for remembering places, for example, and with training, probably almost anybody can perform amazing memory tricks thanks to the method of loci (see Dominic O'Brian, Joshua Foer, and these crazy stats : Calendar tricks are impressive, but it's very easy to do (I can do it - though not fast, I didn't train much). Daniel Tammet uses the method of loci. But Shereshevsky and Kim Peek seem very atypical. – Timothée Behra Sep 8 '13 at 22:09

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