Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Did Christopher Hitchens have a photographic memory?

Mark Colvin on Christopher Hitchens -

"Hitchens spoke as most of us struggle to write - in unbroken sentences, organised into paragraphs. He was aided in this by an astonishingly capacious memory, which could give you the impression that he had instant photographic access to everything he'd ever read."

"I mentioned a line (Wodehouse's description of aunts calling to each other "like mastodons across the primaeval swamp"), which he instantly capped with half a dozen of his own favourite lines. And he could do that with dates, places, people, historical events: an enviable trait in itself, but also the foundation of his strength as an essayist and polemicist."

Colvin, Mark (2011) Don't be a fan. Never be a fan. The Drum. ABC News. December 16th 2011.


Anonymous said...

I won't believe that Christopher Hitchens, or anyone else, has photographic memory, until I see some convincing evidence. I have never seen compelling evidence of anyone having memory that could be described as photographic, and until I do I remain very skeptical of any such claims.

Mr Anon (in a skeptical mood)

Lili Marlene said...

Fair enough. I get the impression that the area of eidetic memory/photographic memory is an area that has not been much researched in a serious way. The history of research into a related type of memory, currently known as superior autobiographical memory, is a joke. "Hyperthymestic Syndrome" was "discovered" in Jill Price and described in 2006 in a paper in Neurocase, the same journal that published Baron-Cohen et al's study of Tammet with the world's most questionable interpretation of data. THe idea that it was a newly discovered condition was rubbish, as it appears to be a common feature of autistic savants, and Steven Jay Gould described a case in his 1997 book chapter about his autistic son. The Lyman Twins are also obvious cases. For reasons unknown, the US researchers changed the name of the syndrome/gift to "hyperthymesia" and in a 2010 60 Minutes story about Jill Price and Marilu Henner, who had been previuosly described as having an eidetic memory, the term "superior autobiographical memory" had replaced the previous two terms. THe biggest joke in this unscientific saga is that the resarchers who wrote the Neurocase paper made an incredible oversight in neglecting to note that they had described their subject's time sequence synaesthesia in their paper, and instead tried to give the reader the impression that Price was unlike the famous synaesthete mnemonist Shereshevskii. I noted their error at my blog, and a UK research team wrote a very interesting paper exploring what appears to be a real link between that type of synaesthesia and superiority in memory for events. It appears that the US researchers are flat-out ingoring the substantial contribution from the UK researchers, while the ditzy Australian journalist who did an Aussie version of the US 60 Minutes story showed that she can't tell the difference between standard deviations and multiplication when she told Australian TV viewers that the poor people with this syndrome have a part of the brain that "...is enormous – up to seven times bigger than normal". Their skulls must surely be groaning!

I think you are wise to exercise caution regarding this area of research. It's a f***-up.

Lili Marlene said...

I've just discovered that one of the memory researchers who wrote about the "Routes to Remembering" study that included Daniel Tammet has also become involved in a debate about hyperthymestic syndrome:


I would actually agree with neither of the researchers in this debate, because neither of them acknowledges the importance of synaesthesia in this syndrome, as has been very fully explored by the UK synaesthesia researchers. I find it very strange that so many memory researchers feel free to ignore the body of research about synaesthesia and memory.