Thursday, April 27, 2006

Shas Pollak

Ever hear the one about the old Jews who could stick a pin through a Talmud and tell you every word it touched? I learned today, from Slate, that not only has this incredible feat been documented in Psychological Review, but there's also a name for these memory experts: Shass Pollak
A group of Talmudic scholars known as the Shass Pollaks supposedly stored mental snapshots of all 5,422 pages of the Babylonian Talmud. According to a paper published in 1917 in the journal Psychological Review, psychologist George Stratton tested the Shass Pollaks by sticking a pin through various tractates of the Talmud. They responded by telling him exactly which words the pin passed through on every page. In fact, the Shass Pollaks probably didn't possess photographic memory so much as heroic perseverance. If the average person decided he was going to dedicate his entire life to memorizing 5,422 pages of text, he'd probably also be pretty good at it. It's an impressive feat of single-mindedness, not of memory
That's the generous explanation. The non-generous explanation is that the Shass Pollak were performing a bit of magic called the Book Test. There are, perhaps, 100 ways to carry off this effect, but the basic routine has the performer divining the words on the particular page of a book. A clue that the Shass Pollak effect was done via magic and not memory is the presence of the pin. A real memory feat wouldn't require props. And the fact that the good folks at Psychological Review thought it was legitimate proves nothing. It's all too easy to fool people who aren't trained in the arts of deception.

No comments: