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See Inside January/February 2012

Forgetting is Key to a Healthy Mind

Letting go of memories supports a sound state of mind, a sharp intellect--and superior recall



Photoillustration by Aaron Goodman

Solomon Shereshevsky could recite entire speeches, word for word, after hearing them once. In minutes, he memorized complex math formulas, passages in foreign languages and tables consisting of 50 numbers or nonsense syllables. The traces of these sequences were so durably etched in his brain that he could reproduce them years later, according to Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, who wrote about the man he called, simply, “S” in The Mind of a Mnemonist.

But the weight of all the memories, piled up and overlapping in his brain, created crippling confusion. S could not fathom the meaning of a story, because the words got in the way. “No,” [S] would say. “This is too much. Each word calls up images; they collide with one another, and the result is chaos. I can’t make anything out of this.” When S was asked to make decisions, as chair of a union group, he could not parse the situation as a whole, tripped up as he was on irrelevant details. He made a living performing feats of recollection.

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