Famous Mnemonists

Dr. Wilson follows a trail that has been blazed by other famous mnemonists, whose amazing feats have been documented in the history of the perfoming arts and variety entertainment. People capable of remarkable feats of memory have also been studied by psychologists interested in how memory works. This page contains brief accounts of some of the most well-known individuals with phenomenal memories, with links and references for further reading.

Simonides of Ceos
Simonides was a Greek lyric poet born in 556 B.C. credited with inventing mnemonics, specifically using mental images together with the method of loci, in which the mnemonist imagines a house or other familiar place to populate with mental images. The Roman teacher of rhetoric Quintilian (born around 35 A.D.) elaborated this method in a treatise (see The Discoverers).

Datas was the stage name for an amazing performer described in Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Datas was an unremarkable student who discovered that he had an appetite for memorizing facts. He worked as a variety entertainer in music halls beginning in London in 1901. His act consisted of answering questions from the audience, mostly involving biographical and historical information and crime and sports statistics. He did not appear to use a formal mnemonic system, but was able to create metal images for later recall. Datas was the model for the performer "Mr. Memory" in Alfred Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps, based on the novel by John Buchan.

Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky
"Sh." is the name given to a Russian mnemonist (Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky) studied for almost thirty years by A. R. Luria beginning in the 1920s. He is described in A. R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist. Shereshevsky could recall lists of numbers that he had memorized decades earlier, and was actually unable to forget the lists he had memorized while perfoming as a mnemonist. He could memorize nonsense syllables, a challenge specifically designed to thwart mnemonic associations. Shereshevsky experienced synesthesia, responding to stimulation of one sense with a perception in one or more different senses. For example, he could see sounds and feel their taste and texture. His remarkable abilities were somewhat disabling. He was not able to read poetry or fiction easily, as each word or phrase would blossom into an intense visualization that might be contradicted by the next one.

A. C. Aitken (1895-1967)
A. C. Aitken was a mathematician who was extraordinarily gifted in mental arithmetic. He had a phenomenal memory for numbers, apparently without using any conscious mnemonic methods, and could recite pi to 707 places.

Kim Peek
Kim Peek is a savant who was the model for the character Raymond Babbitt (played by Dustin Hoffman) in the film Rain Man. Kim Peek has memorized more than 7,600 books, knows the zip codes of every location in America, and the highways leading to any city or town in America. He is able to name the day of the week for any date, but does not otherwise have extraordinary calculating ability, unlike the Raymond Babbitt character in the film Rain Man. He and other savants are described in a Scientific American article on savant syndrome, and on the author's web site.

Harry Lorayne
Harry Lorayne is an accomplished magician who features mnemonic demonstrations in his performances. He has written popular books on memory improvement. Unlike Shereshevsky and Kim Peek, who have rare and partially disabling medical conditions, Harry Lorayne has a normal mind (for a performer, anyway). He has improved his memory through well-known mnemonic techniques and practice, some of which are described in the mnemonics section of this site. See also the web site for Harry Lorayne.

Conclusion: Memory and Thought
An excellent memory is often mistaken as a sign of a powerful intelligence by the general public. Some of these remarkable mnemonists serve to illustrate the difference between accumulated memories and productive thought. Datas appears to have been interested in accumulating facts rather than using them as a starting point to reach conclusions. Shereshevsky's pathological memory interfered with his ability to hold a regular job, enjoy literature, or even seemingly to think in the abstract without being distracted by sensory association. The Argentine poet and short-story writer J. L. Borges shows us the consequences of a perfect memory in his remarkable story Funes the Memorious:

"He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)."

Books and Articles

Ricky Jay, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Farrar Straus & Giroux (Pap); ISBN: 0374525706; (November 1998). (Buy this book from Amazon.com.)

A. R. Luria (trans. L. Solotaroff), The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, Harvard Univ Pr; ISBN: 0674576225; Reprint edition (October 1988). (Buy this book from Amazon.com.)

Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, The Memory Book, Ballantine Books (Trd Pap); ISBN: 0345410025; Reissue edition (August 1996).

Harry Lorayne and Walter Brown Gibson, Super Power Memory, Frederick Fell Publishers, Inc.; ISBN: 0883910500; 2 edition (February 15, 2001)

Darold Treffert and Gregory Wallace, "Islands of Genius," Scientific American, June 2002, pp. 76-85.
See also www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/savant

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, Random House; ISBN 0-394-40229-4; (1983).


Jorge Luis Borges. Funes the Memorious.


The 39 Steps (1935). Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Rain Man (1988). Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise. Director: Barry Levinson.

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