Super memories are just ordinary minds after extraordinary practice

Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer for Superhuman, the forthcoming Fox show that will “test the abilities of 12 ordinary people to use their extraordinary skills,” including “nearly super-human” memory. The trailer shows a man adding ten two digit numbers, each of which he saw for only 100 milliseconds. Another contestant can remember a long sequence of chess pieces. Another can remember the names of 200 people he met briefly. And another can remember 15 phone numbers of people he just met.

Does it take a different kind of memory to do these things? Or are they the work of ordinary minds after extraordinary practice? K. Anders Ericsson and William Chase say it’s the latter.

In short-term memory, most people can store, in order, about seven pieces of information, like the ordered digits in a phone number. It takes effort to transfer them to long-term memory — so much so that few think they could ever memorize more than a single phone number in the time Superhuman contestants do vastly more.

A simple example shows this is a false assumption. Shown the state of a mid-game chess board for five or ten seconds, a chess novice can only recall the position of a handful of pieces — that which she can stuff into short-term memory. A chess master, on the other hand, can recall the position of nearly all the pieces. But, if the pieces are arranged randomly — i.e., in a manner that could not (or is very unlikely to) arise in an actual game — a master’s recall is no better than a novice’s.

The difference between the novice and the master is that the latter has studied the game far longer. In doing so, he has infused spatial relationships among pieces with meaning that allow him to code and store them in memory more efficiently. As the random configuration results show, a master’s memory isn’t actually better. It’s the meaningful, higher level abstraction with which he processes actual game configurations that give his quite ordinary memory a boost. He’s not remembering more. He’s remembering differently, not piece-by-piece, but larger structures.

In one-hour sessions, several times per week for nearly two years, Ericsson and Chase showed an undergraduate, called “SF”, sequences of random digits at a rate of one per second. At first, he could remember no more than the rest of us: seven digits. By the end of the experiment, he could recall 80, and without any instruction on how to boost his memory.

The approach SF developed on his own, over time, was to encode sequences of digits at a higher level of abstraction. One of his technique’s was to associate them with running times. He was a runner, and typical times of various length races were meaningful to him. To SF, a sequence of eight random digits would turn into two, memorable racing times. When given sequences of numbers were not amenable to his encoding techniques (e.g., because they could not be parsed as racing times), his performance dropped back to beginner level, just like the chess masters looking at random arrangements of chess pieces.

You can probably relate to the fact that study subjects can recall only about seven random words, but can recall twice that many when organized into a meaningful sentence. Well, duh! To those who have spent a lifetime “practicing” making sense and remembering sequences of words that mean something — that is, all of us — words that have meaning when strung together are more memorable. Just like the chess masters with chess positions and SF with running-time like numbers, when a list of words has meaning, it’s more easily transferred to long-term memory.

In all instances, that which is memorized has been compressed. The chess master sees higher-level structure among the individual pieces. SF turns multiple digits in to single race times. We turn sequences of words into sentences that mean something — a single thing. The meaning-adding compression seems to facilitate short- to long-term memory conversion.

Whatever you see on Superhuman, don’t be fooled. Almost nobody has innate, superhuman memory. We all remember roughly the same amount. Some people have just practiced special techniques to rapidly encode into meaningful stories/images/structures/whatever what to us is a bunch of random, unmemorable stuff. The techniques and what they encode are matched. The chess master can remember configurations of chess pieces well, but not random words. SF developed techniques for random digits, but that’s not applicable to chess configurations.

The Superhuman contestants have done an extraordinary amount of work to make the most of their ordinary memories, but just for specific tasks. What’s inspiring, perhaps, is that, with practice, you and I could enhance our memories too. My question is, can we do so in a generalized way, improving our memories for anything, not just one specific kind of thing?


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