Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Kim Peek (wikipedia.org)
125 points by pmoriarty on Oct 13, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

I recall seeing Kim Peek many times in the old downtown Salt Lake City library in the late 80s. I always saw him camped out at some table near the reference section under the escalators on the main floor. He would usually have a stack of phone books (The White Pages) from around the country and spend hours methodically scanning and memorizing every page.

It also helped that the new Salt Lake City Library is so beautiful to work in. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_Lake_City_Public_Library On of the world finest libraries imho.

I recall seeing him for the first time in a documentary about Daniel Tammet[0].

Seeing him read books by basically just scanning two pages at once was astonishing. If I recall correctly, his father mentioned he had recently started to understand and tell jokes, which I found interesting, and somehow moving.

And on a side note, after seeing "the original", Dustin Hoffman's interpretation in Rain Main felt way more precise than I would have ever thought.

[0] "Brainman", I believe https://guidedoc.tv/documentary/brainman-documentary-film/

It is worth noting that Tammet is widely believed to use regular mnemonic techniques:


"I’m a bit surprised by Helix’s idea that answering this question might get me into trouble, because it’s not something that’s debated among the people who go to competitions. It’s well known that he uses memory techniques like a ‘regular person’ - he was a regular at the world championships for years, slightly before my time (though we did meet in 2000), and always talking about the specific techniques he used. It’s not really that much of a secret…"

There also is a Letterman interview where he behaved rather normal, to the point that Letterman asked him if he was actually autistic (Letterman clearly did not believe it).

I know a guy who competes and does well in memory sports. I'd say he's above average intelligence for sure, maybe in the top 5%, but not some sort of extreme freak of nature. He's spent thousands of hours drilling memory techniques though. "Moonwalking with Einstein" is a good book about memory sports and has an intro to some of the basic techniques. From what I've seen, it's really about deepening a set of specialized ruts in the road in the brain around remembering numbers and other things that memory sports athletes compete on. It's essentially building custom designed specialized neural networks in the brain through thousands of hours of drilling.

One thing I told my nephew is that he can spend thousands of hours playing video games and then have his head full of video game trivia or he can spend thousands of hours learning to program or learning memory sports techniques and have almost as much fun, but instead wind up with something that he can actually use later in his life that doesn't involve working for a video game company.

> One thing I told my nephew is that he can spend thousands of hours playing video games and then have his head full of video game trivia or he can spend thousands of hours learning to program or learning memory sports techniques and have almost as much fun, but instead wind up with something that he can actually use later in his life that doesn't involve working for a video game company.

I don't think there are so many people who find that learning to program or learning memory sports techniques is the same kind of fun as playing video games.

My passion for videogames led to a passion for computers in general. All kids spend thousands of hours playing.

Are memory sports techniques useful in general? I don't know much about them but they seem specialized for memorizing streams of rote information (like strings of numbers). Can they also be used to recall useful information?

This was pretty remarkable to watch, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLpCfHH1OVU

The fact that he lacked conceptual encoding really says something.

What do you mean by conceptual encoding?

It's explained @ ~around the 35' minute mark, but basically he did not understand or grasp metaphors, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceptual_metaphor - like a machine he would interpret everything literally, excellent case study for some of the obstacles facing AGI in my opinion.

> Conceptual encoding contributes to the construction of conceptual representations in the mind of the addressee, whilst procedural encoding provides the addressee with instructions as to how conceptual representations are to be manipulated to achieve relevance.

To me it reads as a lack of ability to conceptualize, for instance, others‘ state of mind.

But Kim Peek does seem to get some metaphors. He said "My dad and I share the same shadow." towards the end of the video. Maybe he just picked it up from someone else, though.

>> Peek read by scanning the left page with his left eye, then the right page with his right eye. According to an article in The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books.[6]

These are pretty extraordinary claims and I'm curious to know whether they were ever tested in controlled conditions.

For example, how does one verify the recollection of the contents of "at least" 12,000 books? Was there an experiment performed, where he was asked questions about a sufficiently large, randomly chosen, sample of those 12,000 books?

I understand that Tim Peek made a living out of his mnemonic abilities and I think, in that context, skepticism is justified.

I grew up in a house of books and have lived with a bookseller for most of my life. Having therefore owned and lived with 10,000 to 15,000 books, periodicals and related ephemera (catalogues, concordance &c) I can assure you I cannot recall even fractional amounts of most of these although I can recall significant amounts of many and quite inaccurately quote some small amount. So I too think the question demands testing: it's the kind of thing people say but actually don't mean. "What is written on page 150 of the third book on the tenth shelf" is quite different to what comes after 'it was the best of times it was the worst of times' and many Shakespearean fans could quite easily quote significant amounts of most plays, Wagnerians could sing the ring cycle, my mum who certainly didn't have eidetic memory could whistle a lot of Mozart or Bach: getting from pedestrian memory to this specific recall Peek is said to have had is pretty strange, and I think should be verified. Day of the year or train timetables are tricks. Flow text with meaning? That's hard.

I know that calculating what day it was on a given date is a common mnemonic trick, e.g. see [1]. It's not easy to do but a person well-trained in mental arithmetic and memorisation should be able to pull it off.

I didn't know about recalling trains timetables and I can't find any pointers online. Can you point to a source explaining how it's done? I always like to impress at parties :)

Btw, the fact that Peek demonstrated common mnemonic skills that don't require unique abilities to perform casts further doubt on the fact that he had such unique abilities.


[1] https://artofmemory.com/blog/how-to-calculate-the-day-of-the...

I’m not certain meaning is implied.

My memory is decent, but nothing spectacular, and I have numerous poems accurately committed to memory in multiple languages I do not speak, or did not know when I memorised them - and I’m talking lengthy tone poems and that sort of thing.

I memorised them using traditional spaced repetition techniques, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Peek’s recall was similar - content without meaning, a progressing pattern. I think it’s similar to learning music by rote - at any rate, the recall feels similar - flow pickup points, like key frames in animation, with everything following being a seemingly obvious progression from that seed.

given that the left visual field of both eyes is connected to the right hemisphere and the right visual field of both eyes is connected to the left hemisphere, I wonder about the claim that each eye scans a separate page. It doesn't make sense. Actually both eyes would see each page and so the left half of both pages would go to the right brain and the right half of both pages would go to the left brain.

How do you remember facts you have read? Do you remember facts from reading or listening? Vision is the fastest input into the brain compared to other senses. I generally remember facts by remembering the image, for example some books I've read, I can tell you what page number, what side of the book and where on the page the information is but I can also tell you where I was standing when I read the book and sometimes the smells. Is that a clue as to how we remember? Websites are harder. Some information is irrelevant so I don't remember it, this could also be why some people don't learn at school if a kid has secret plans about their futures even from primary school age. Thing is people remember all sorts of things that are pertinent to them, life changing events and when detailed questioning is applied they can tell you everything about the situation even smells. So what I wonder is this, do certain hormones have an effect on recall considering the fight or flight phenomena? The Police also know witness statements can be unreliable because people switch off on repetition like driving to work, it becomes an almost unconscious task, so does this also back up the possibility that stressful environments can heighten learning? Do Neurologists sample hormones when putting people into a MRI scanner? Not in my limited experience.

I found it odd he turned books upside down to remember he read them.

Well, if you open a book you're currently reading you can pretty easily tell which parts you've already read and which you haven't - but you still probably use some sort of bookmark to avoid going through the hassle.

This sounds similar, a matter of convenience rather than a need. Glance at a bookshelf and you can know visually what's still unread without checking the books one by one.

> I found it odd he turned books upside down to remember he read them.

Unless you have another source, I think you've misread the article.

From the article:

> ...Kim was able to memorize things from the age of 16–20 months. He read books, memorized them, and then placed them upside down on the shelf to show that he had finished reading them, a practice he maintained all his life.

It sounds like he turned them upside down from an early age to signal that he'd read the book (perhaps to his parents?), not to remember that he'd read it. And then, for some reason, he maintained the practice for the rest of his life.

But either way, the article doesn't say he turned books upside down to remember he'd read them.

I think it's just stylistic phrasing.

"I place a piece of paper between books on the shelf to remember that I've read all the ones on the right."

Yeah, technically, I'm not 'remembering' in this case, I'm 'reminding' myself.

Is he actually comprehending what he is reading or just indexing it? I doubt he could comprehend an entire physics book in 1 hour, so I'm guessing this is purely memorization, not comprehension.

"Indexing" - see this comment


Another guy with savantism, who impresses me a lot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Richards_(Scrabble_playe...

> In psychological testing, Peek scored low average (87) on general IQ tests.

I would have presumed that would have been much higher.

This could be a case where cognitive functions were highly uncorrelated. For example he could've had enormous working memory but extremely low spacial intelligence. In most people these are highly correlated and so IQ can be an informative number but in his case, it might carry less information.

IQ tests in my experience are better for logic, maths and abstract thinking, eg trying to spot the pattern in a series. Other tests which can be used to measure brain abilities, could be the brick test, where you are presented with a brick and have to list all the ways a brick could be used. This is somewhat dependant on life experience of course and its hard to know what someone has seen and thus experienced. Another example of brain function is identifying auditory tones and patterns, some people are better at picking up notes in a section of played music than others. School in some ways and interests is an intelligence test in itself by virtue of the subjects a child wants to study and is good at. So IQ tests are somewhat limited in determining brain function and abilities.

I've always been good at the alternative uses test. I'm better with possible than probable. Is there some kind of standardised test I could take for it?

Average IQ of unskilled worker is 87 and it's considered normal level (assuming SD 15 points normally used in IQ tests).

IQ measures few cognitive skills - with some relevant to abstract thinking amongst them, which were problematic for KP. Most savants have low IQ scores.

also recently featuring kim https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcPzTr-BbAA

As far as I know, Kim Peek has never made any scientific discoveries, or had any wisdom to tell the world, in spite of being able to remember ~12k books.

It's a good reminder that knowledge does not equal intelligence or wisdom.

This is a natural reaction and it’s common for people to remark on his high memory yet low cognition, but nonetheless this comment somewhat bothers me. This is my issue, not yours, and I may be misinterpreting, but here’s my thinking...

Why is scientific discoveries even something he’s compared against? What does that have to do with the post? Do all people with excessive talents of some kind have to make scientific discoveries to prove it?

How would you even presume to have any idea whether Kim had wisdom to share? Wisdom is very different from scientific discoveries, and why would anyone know that except himself or his family? How hard did you try to find whether he had wisdom to share? What if he had lots of wisdom that the rest of us couldn’t understand? Are you suggesting that someone doesn’t have wisdom unless they publish it?

Let me ask this way: do you consider yourself smart & wise? What scientific discoveries have you made, what wisdom have you told the world?

We should not draw broad conclusions about the way knowledge and intelligence work based on one person who’s in an extremely abnormal situation. In most normal people, knowledge and intelligence and wisdom are closely related, it takes knowledge (experience) to gain wisdom, it takes intelligence to formulate wisdom, and it takes wisdom to seek the kind of knowledge that can lead to intelligence. For most people, having a lot of knowledge would precipitate some wisdom automatically. Normal people spot patterns. You can’t normally have a lot of one without the others. Kim Peek is a stark outlier compared to how normal brains work.

Your comment also hints at a cultural narrative that is common but not true, where people tend to see someone with extraordinary talents and “remind” everyone that it also means there must be some extraordinary deficiencies there too, because balance. There are some people that have extreme memory and are still smarter and more accomplished than the average person. Marilu Henner is a good example of that. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilu_Henner

Your comment also hints at a cultural narrative that is common but not true, where people tend to see someone with extraordinary talents and “remind” everyone that it also means there must be some extraordinary deficiencies there too, because balance.

It's not about balance. It's about what you can do with it or did with it.

Another interesting savant with an IQ of 210:


The guy actually had a productive career as a civil engineer and had a decent publication record after being exploited as a grunt differential equation solver at NASA for 10 years while a teenager.

Well, scientific discoveries required creativity and innovation, not just intelligence. At least, some of them probably do.

In Kuhn's main book (scientific revolutions), he mentions creativity as vital to discoveries, multiple times. Not sure if intelligence is ever mentionned, but I doubt it because it can't be defined in a useful way.

Did he understand those books? Was he able to present the premises, propositions and arguments from those books or just to recite them? The latter does not constitute even knowledge, just memory.

For most (not Peek), memory and knowledge are necessarily linked since memory tends to work better when there is a previously existing connection to attach a new piece of information to.

So, we don't tend to remember facts for the sake of facts. This obviously isn't always true, but for vast amounts of information, it would be very difficult to remember single "nodes" of information without having some connection to other information.

Memory contestants use this to their advantage, by creating some sense of story and/or place to attach the otherwise arbitrary information, like digits or cards, to.

Or if he did, he never bothered to tell anyone.

Scientific discovery may have been in the realm of individual accomplishment 200 years ago, now it requires organization. I wouldn't let this fact color your judgment.

I'm sure he could have done a PhD like anyone else.

This guy is said to have memorized decades worth of newspaper articles, phone books, and other potentially PII. How does that jive with GDPR and Right to Be Forgotten? If people just start using him to do background checks, wouldn't that be a violation of RTBF?

I’m deeply offended by the commenters questioning the authenticity of this guy’s bio. The poor man lived and died essentially an outcast and alone.

Why is it offensive to ask if specific and extraordinary claims have ever been verified in controlled conditions? I also don't see how this has any relation on Kim living as a lonely outcast.

Because offended is the new black.

You're offended. Says more about you.

Why would it even be offensive at all (but especially to you) to question the veracity of facts in a Wikipedia article?

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact