Let me describe 2 interesting cases :

  • Solomon Shereshevsky (Luria, 1968) 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, 1993), 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?


Hunt, R. R., & Worthen, J. B. (Eds.). (2006). Distinctiveness and memory. Oxford University Press.

Luria, A. R. (1968). The mind of a mnemonist: A little book about a vast memory. Harvard University Press.

Robinson, J. A., & Swanson, K. L. (1993). Field and observer modes of remembering. Memory, 1(3), 169-184.

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    $\begingroup$ 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". $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Sep 8, 2013 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ 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 : world-memory-statistics.com/disciplines.php). 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. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2013 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ Search for Dyslexia and rote memorization. It's very difficulty for ppl with Dyslexia to engage in rote memorization. Learning about their thinking style will help. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2018 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ If I had to pick a counterexample I would pick John Von Neumann, an extremely influential mathematician known to have possessed a great memory. There are plenty of anecdotes if you find yourself interested. The examples you gave I think are very typical of savantism and likely not reflective of a typical person with a heightened memory. I did once read a book claiming people with photographic memories often performed worse on abstract reasoning tasks, but I frankly don't have the source. The book claimed that these people were more negligent of their reasoning skills, relying mainly on memory. $\endgroup$
    – LPenguin
    Apr 21, 2021 at 1:38

1 Answer 1


Building on the comment by @LPenguin I think John von Neumann is a great counterexample:

Apart from him being a math genius here are two quotes about his rote memorization skills:

He could, it is said, memorize the names, addresses, and telephone numbers in a column of the telephone book on sight. The legend of John von Neumann p. 383

Herman Goldstine wrote about him: "One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation." The computer- From Pascal to Neumann p. 167`


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