Robert Krulwich: And I’m Robert Krulwich
Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab. Today our topic is...
JA & Robert Krulwich: Limits.
Jad Abumrad: Limits.
Robert Krulwich: How far can you take your your body we've done that
Jad Abumrad: we've exhausted that
Robert Krulwich: I think so let's go uptown yet to the limits of the brain to tackle just a piece of that question let's just take a look at memory
Jonah Lehrer: OK.
Robert Krulwich: And we're going to do that by telling a story...
Jad Abumrad: A story that we heard from Jonah Lehrer. You know frequent guest on the show, author of the books “Proust was a neuroscientist” “How we decide”
Robert Krulwich: and the story begins in a small town in the old Soviet Union, back in the one 1920s.
Jad Abumrad: And it's about a newspaper reporter named Mr S. At least that's what we're going to call him.
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, so Mr S. is a newspaper reporter and one day his boss starts yelling at him because his boss gives out these assignments, talks to the whole newsroom and he notices that Mr S. never takes notes. And this drives his boss crazy because bosses you know saying all these things they have to report on and Mr S. just never writes them down. And so his boss calls him does office and says: Are you lazy? do you not take this job seriously? and Mr S. responds, Well, I just remember it all.
Robert Krulwich: And the editor says, come on and he sort of quizzes him, he says what did I assign you yesterday?
Jonah Lehrer: his boss gives him this quiz and sure enough he remembers everything
Robert Krulwich: He remembers everything the editor said word for word. And the editor’s thinking, I don't know wrong with this guy. I mean he's not a great reporter, but he has something queer going on in his head. So we decided to send him to a famous medical doctor in Moscow. A. R. Luria.
Robert Krulwich: Who is Luria?
Elkhonon Goldberg: Luria well is a classical figure in neuropsychology and in psychology in general
Jad Abumrad: and who is this?
Robert Krulwich: Tell us your name?
Elkhonon Goldberg: I’m Elkhonon Goldberg. I’m a clinical professor at NYU medical school
Robert Krulwich: Goldberg knew Luria
Elkhonon Goldberg: Luria was my mentor I worked very closely with him
Robert Krulwich: Not only was he a student of Luria’s
Elkhonon Goldberg: Yes yes
Robert Krulwich: Luria gave him a present once
Elkhonon Goldberg: Ah! This is this book. The book, about the original book about Mr S.
Robert Krulwich: This book is one of the great works of early neuroscience.
Elkhonon Goldberg: That’s him, yeah
Robert Krulwich: Oh so you're going to the right guy! you have an autographed copy by the guy! It is a beautiful and almost novelistic description of what happened to Mr.S
Elkhonon Goldberg: And the original title was a “Little Book About Big Memory”
Robert Krulwich: And what is it in Russian?
Elkhonon Goldberg: (says the book title in Russian)
Jad Abumrad: OK, so Jonah this guy, Mr S, goes to the psychologist Luria, what does Luria do with
Jonah Lehrer: Luria during the book talks about how he wrote random numbers on a blackboard
Robert Krulwich: Numbers like one, eight, six, four, three.. about 50 numbers
Jonah Lehrer: and asked Mr S. To remember them
Elkhonon Goldberg: Okay, here we are of page sixty. S. would study the material of the board
Robert Krulwich: for about three minutes
Elkhonon Goldberg: Close his eyes slow, open them again for a moment
Jonah Lehrer: OK done
Elkhonon Goldberg: and with that he would reel off the series precisely six six eight zero four, three two
one (fades under).
Jad Abumrad: Wow, this is like a super power
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah and this impresses Luria he says
Robert Krulwich: so he takes it up to the next level
Jonah Lehrer: and Luria gives him this this this incredible assortment of memory tasks, you know everything from memorize Dante’s Inferno. Um to to…
Jad Abumrad: Memorize Dante’s Inferno? The whole thing?
Elkhonon Goldberg: No No No
Robert Krulwich: Well not the whole thing, just the opening stanzas
S.: (Dante’s Inferno in Italian)
Robert Krulwich: And here’s the really weird thing. Mr S. does not read italian, speak Italian, he had no idea what he was talking about …(in Italian) and yet the thing he memorizes he gets word perfect
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah
Robert Krulwich: and not only that, he was tested fifteen years after he’d memorized those stanzas and he still got it right
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah
Robert Krulwich: Oh wow.
Elkhonon Goldberg: He remembered everything. He had...
Robert Krulwich: When you say everything what do you mean by that?
Elkhonon Goldberg: I mean everything. Okay? So if he suppose he interviewed you ten years ago he would have remembered the color of your sweater, whether you held the mic in the left hand or in the right hand. He would have remembered everything, I mean everything.
Jonah Lehrer: Luria never talks about a computational limit on Mr S's memory.
Luria (someone reading as Luria): As an experimenter I soon found myself in the state verging on utter confusion. And I simply had to admit that the capacity of his memory, had no distinct limits.
Jad Abumrad: How can there be no limits? Because I'm thinking about the size of a normal head. It's like fifty centimeters or something in diameter. The brain is three pounds, it's a very confined little situation. How could there be no limits?
Jonah Lehrer: I wish there was a good answer, nobody has any idea why it is he had this infinite capability for recall. What it does suggest though is that the brain has a capability to store an incredible amount of stuff.
Robert Krulwich: How much stuff though? How much can you jam into a human brain?
Jad Abumrad: I don't I don't think anyone knows. So let's just stop and call it quits.
Jad Abumrad: No no no doubt forget that. In fact let me take you to a competition which investigates that very question. We're going to change locations from, where we just now?
Robert Krulwich: We were in Russia
Jad Abumrad: From Russia in 1920s. To, you ready for this? London 2009, here we are at the World Memory Championships.
Robert Krulwich: the world what?
Jad Abumrad: The World Memory Championships, just go with me for a second
Robert Krulwich: Okay
Jad Abumrad: So we're in a hotel in central London. The lobby is crowded with the world's best memorizers. So you’ve got people here from like Oman (name), Manchester (name), Netherlands (name)... even have a team of Chinese girls in the corner doing a cheer. (cheers)
6:31 - MUSIC
Robert Krulwich: And what are we doing here?
Jad Abumrad: well the people here are a little bit like the guy you're describing Mr S. They are walking experiments in brain stuffing. The difference is they're perfectly normal human beings.
REPORTER: Would you start by introducing yourself?
Jad Abumrad: Like this guy
Ben: I'm Ben Fitmare (last name?) put him on the reigning world memory champion. I'm
thirty three years old, and I live in Notthingham.
Jad Abumrad: Ben can take a string of that is 1400 numbers long.
Robert Krulwich: Random numbers?
Jad Abumrad: Random numbers. And he can commit it to memory instantly.
Robert Krulwich: God
Jad Abumrad: He can take a deck of cards and memorize it in twenty four seconds.
Robert Krulwich: Wow
Jad Abumrad: Yeah
Ben: We’ve not actually reached, you know, any kind of upper limit of what it's possible to memorize yet, everybody still consistently improving.
7:18 - MUSIC STOPS
Jad Abumrad: So here's what we did. We we found a guy.
Ronnie White: Oh I’m, my name is Ronnie White and I'm the 2009 USA memory champ
Jad Abumrad: He's a Navy reservist from Dallas, Texas
Ronnie White: Matter of fact, I had to get permission from my unit to come here
Jad Abumrad: and we followed him around the competition
REPORTER: What's about to happen?
Ronnie White: Well the competitions about start. You know, you know it's day one, should be a fun
Jad Abumrad: because we want to know like how do you do it? How do you take the limits of a
normal brain and completely shatter them?
Ronnie White: So I walked in the room that day wearing my Michael Phelps t-shirt, you know it said USA on the front.
ANNOUNCER: One minute for mental prepapation time starts now...
Ronnie White: The final minutes before you start an event you're sitting in your chair, and you're just collecting your thoughts. I put on my military glasses. I got some, they’re like Drew Carey's glasses. And I put those on to remind me, hey remain calm. You know, I wore those all throughout my tour in Afganistan. If you're going down a road and you're needing to be on the lookout for I.U.D.'s but you're not calm, you're nervous and jittery. You could die. Then I'll put on some noise cancelling headsets, then I just close my eyes, sit in my chair.
ANNOUNCER: 10 seconds. Neurons on the ready
Jad Abumrad: Neurons on the ready they say.
Jad Abumrad: And at that moment, sixty people turn over papers. On these pieces of paper are numbers
VOICE: Six seven one
Jad Abumrad: Nothing but numbers. Numbers numbers numbers numbers numbers forever
Robert Krulwich: And what are they doing?
Jad Abumrad: Well they have to memorize them
Robert Krulwich: So it’s just all of these people staring at pieces of paper?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah absolute silence. Heads down, sixty heads down staring at numbers
ANNOUNCER: six seven
Jad Abumrad: But here's the, here's the interesting thing: in their heads, they're not seeing numbers. Instead those numbers are turning into ...
Ronnie White: (mixed with numbers) George Bush - Florence Nightingale - Randy Richardson, he's a friend - Bernie Fash (?) - Iraq (?) - Michael Jordan - Chuck Norris - Donnie Brasco - Bush, you know that was Boy George - Joe Tee (?) - Martha Stweart - George Michael - Ben Franklin - Chuck Norris - Ann Frank - Indiana Jones - My friend Rodney - King Tut...
Ronnie White: I have a person assigned every number from zero to 99 and then I have a verb assigned to every person from zero to 99. And then I have a noun assigned to every digit so you're just taking person, verbs and objects.
ANNOUNCE: STOP memorization. Please put your cards down.
Ronnie White: And you're put them all together and they really don't make sense. (AMBI) The images that I saw? I saw Albert Einstein riding a roller coaster into a bunch of fog.
VOICE: By nine three seven eight seven ...
Ronnie White: That was one of the images. I saw Fat Albert cartoon character driving a car (hey
VOICE: Eight one nine nine...
Ronnie White: I saw a Victoria Secret model which was one of my favorite pictures. I saw a Victoria Secret model shooting a gun.
VOICE: Hey, Ronnie! (gun shots)
Ronnie White: Stuff like that.
Robert Krulwich: (laughs) Stuff like that.
Jad Abumrad: So there seems to be something about turning data into pictures that makes that data etch
Jonah Lehrer: It becomes easier to hold onto
Robert Krulwich: Do you have any idea why?
Jad Abumrad: Do I have any idea why?
Robert Krulwich: Do you I’m asking
Jad Abumrad: No I don’t but Jonah might
Jonah Lehrer: I don't know, I would just be purely speculating here. But the visual cortex has been hugely enhanced in human evolution it's the you know the rear half of our brain. Because we know that memories, you know there is no memory center in the brain it's distributed in our sensory areas, it might make a little sense that given that we've got this huge chunk of visual cortex that it's easier to store memory there.
Robert Krulwich: OK so let me ask you, how did Ron's visual cortex do in the big contest?
Jad Abumrad: Well, Ron? Ron didn't actually do so well.
Robert Krulwich: He didn't?
Jad Abumrad: Hm. He was trying to memorize these twelve decks of cards and he had constructed this whole like a stack of pictures, but he did them in the wrong order and he screwed up
Robert Krulwich: He lost?
Jad Abumrad: He lost really badly and unfortunately
Ronnie White: I was shocked I mean I was just shocked. That that knocked me out of any possible...
Robert Krulwich: You know, who by the way who didn't lose? Remember Mr S.? The guy we started this conversation with?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah sure
Robert Krulwich: This is interesting. It turns out that Mr S. also had little pictures and little characters running around in his mind, but unlike Ron, he never asked for the pictures
Jonah Lehrer: No, he couldn't... you know even when he wanted not to do it, he couldn't help, but do it.
Jad Abumrad: Meaning what?
Elkhonon Goldberg: He was born that way. He had this tremendous memory without any effort and without any mnemonic techniques, this is the point.
Jad Abumrad: You mean his mind made the pictures automatically?
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah
Robert Krulwich: Mr S. had a condition called synesthesia where your senses get kind of tangled up
Jonah Lehrer: so he heard voices in terms of colors
Elkhonon Goldberg: right, colors or voices
Jonah Lehrer: textures
Elkhonon Goldberg: smells of words and
Jonah Lehrer: his numbers weren’t just numbers. Sometimes he imagines walking through a crowded Moscow street and the numbers are scattered along the way. And so he describes how, I’m waking down the street, there's a number one
Elkhonon Goldberg: this is a proud well built man (?)
Jonah Lehrer: Then I make a right turn onto the side street, there's the number
Elkhonon Goldberg: Two is a high-spirited woman (?)
Jonah Lehrer: Then I make a left turn there's the number
Elkhonon Goldberg: Three, a gloomy person, why? I don't know?
Jonah Lehrer: Nobody knows. Nobody knows exactly what accounts for the individual associations of synesthesia, they just exist. But they’re this extra scaffold for Mr S.'s memory to cling to.
Jad Abumrad: Wow so he's like Ron except he's using all his senses to remember numbers
Jonah Lehrer: Exactly
Jad Abumrad: So um, getting back to the plot. What did what did he do with his talent?
Jonah Lehrer: He became a traveling circus freak basically
Elkhonon Goldberg: yeah. Yeah, yeah… you know, like, well circus..
Robert Krulwich: Mr Memory...
Elkhonon Goldberg: Professional mnemonist, yeah
Jonah Lehrer: He gave up journalism to perform for crowds
Robert Krulwich: Just imagine it went something, I don’t know, like this…
(SCENE: Ladies and gentleman! Please welcome the Captain of Cognition. The Master of Memory! The Spectacular Shereshevsky! (applause))
Robert Krulwich: Imagine this in a a big crowd, he walks onto the stage, he gives them an invitation,
he asks them to
Jonah Lehrer: shout random numbers
(SCENE: 58! 25! 24! 28! 45! 203!)
Robert Krulwich: then after a little while the crowd quiets down. And Mr S. would close his eyes and step forward
Jonah Lehrer: and he would remember them all.
Jad Abumrad: This was his job?
Jonah Lehrer: yeah
Robert Krulwich: and it wasn't just numbers by the way he was thrown weird phrases. Nonsense sounds. Nouns, verbs and sometimes he’d do four shows a day. And the more he did, the more obvious it became that this business of his... it had, um, a downside. Here's where we're going to finally reach, maybe, the limits question that we're really examining in this program. He would hear all these nonsense phrases being thrown at him and they would build up in his mind
Jonah Lehrer: And it's important to know this was incredibly frustrating for Mr S.
Robert Krulwich: He had a constant stream of memories pouring into his brain. He couldn't get any of it out and on top of that as they piled up the memories began to kind of mush together one would trigger another and then another and then another...
Jonah Lehrer: it was this suffocating web of association
Elkhonon Goldberg: The moment he encountered anything, everything even remotely related in his past
to that something was immediately evoked in his memory
Robert Krulwich: for example let's suppose a man in the audience stands up. And he shouts out the word “dog.” For a split second Mr S. sees a dog which suggests another dog. And then another dog and then
Jonah Lehrer: every dog he ever saw
Robert Krulwich: And the man, suggests not just that man, but the man beside him, the other man, the men that he knew
Jonah Lehrer: all the other competitions where a similar looking man stood up and shouted something similar
Elkhonon Goldberg: He was barraged, he was deluged, with all kinds of memories, totally unrelated
(SCENE: CHAOTIC SOUND)
Elkhonon Goldberg: Everything layered upon layered on top of the other
Robert Krulwich: that's horrible
Elkhonon Goldberg: I agree.
Robert Krulwich: Wow
Elkhonon Goldberg: That's a pure bloody nightmare
Jonah Lehrer: The mind isn't just interested in storing information it really wants to be able to get meaning out of that information. Out of those memories. And that actually seems to be
turned off, to be inhibited by remembering too much.
Robert Krulwich: In other words there really is a limit in our heads. It's a different kind of limit really,
not the limitless ability to remember one number after another, but a precious balance. If you remember too much, you will make no sense of the world.
Jad Abumrad: It's weird I've never actually thought of making sense of the world as being an act of negation…
Robert Krulwich: Yeah
Jad Abumrad: Do you know what I mean?
Robert Krulwich: It’s very much that
Jad Abumrad: But it kind of makes sense because if you think about, like, living here in New York City… (SCENE OF NYC) All the people you bump into. If you remembered every freakin one? You wouldn’t be able to have a relationship with your wife or your husband, or your child. Because they’d just be lost in this thick crowd in your head. Just like, get them out, out!
Robert Krulwich: Somehow that’s the balance - the act of forgetting is crucial to create preciousness
Jad Abumrad: Although I do wish I had a better memory.
Robert Krulwich: What’s your name again?