Memory and elite performance

EinsteinWhat explains elite performance? Traditionally, the achievements of successful individuals have been explained in terms of giftedness or innate talent. Scientists in the early in the twentieth century believed that experts were innately talented with a superior ability to store information in memory. Numerous anecdotes were collected as evidence of an unusual ability to store presented information rapidly. For example, Mozart was supposed to be able to reproduce a presented piece of music after hearing it a single time. According to this narrative, Gary Kasparov’s unrivalled dominance of the chess world was possible only because he was born with the right genes; Einstein was able to bring about a revolution in physics because he was born with an astronomical IQ. Recent evidence from the cognitive sciences, however, has converged on a very different conclusion. World class performers are built and not born.

Modern research shows that the traditional account of genius gets the relationship between memory and performance backwards. Although high performers do outperform novices, their superior memory is limited to their domains of expertise and is the result of acquired skills and knowledge relevant to each specific domain. Research has shown, for instance, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players. In 1946 a dutch psychologist named Adriaan De Groot conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high level chess players. The experiment involved showing players of various levels of skill different configurations of boards from actual, though unfamiliar, high level chess games. The participants were then asked to reconstruct the boards from memory. The results were astonishing. Chess experts were able to recall the configurations of the chess pieces with almost perfect accuracy while novice players could only recall the position of about a third of the pieces. Chess is generally thought of as a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy, but in actual fact, the source of skill of expert players is what they remember about the game, and the way that those memories influences their perceptions of the board in front of them.

Similar findings have been made in other disciplines too. K. Anders Ericsson , the world’s foremost expert on elite performance, looked to determine what factors predicted world class performance amongst music students. The critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in intensive training, which totalled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts,  around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists.  More generally, the accumulated amount of targeted practice at the edge of their abilities is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians. This research gave rise to the now popular ’10,000 hour’ rule, according to which genius is the product of at least ten thousand hours of deliberate study of a particular field.

Genius is not born, it is painfully cultivated, generally over a period of 10 years, but could the ’10,000 hour rule’ perhaps be bent? Could it be possible, without invoking science fiction technologies or dangerous ‘smart’ drugs to learn at superhuman speeds?

Every year, a group of mental athletes from all over the world assemble for the world memory championships where they perform astonishing feats of high speed learning. For instance, the world record for memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds. The world record for memorizing binary digits in five minutes is 1080 digits. Outside of competition, these athletes have demonstrated their incredible potential for practical learning; one competitor at the first world memory championships, a mnemonist named Bruce Balmer, taught himself 2000 foreign words in only one day. Another competitor from the 14th World memory championships famously taught himself Icelandic in only one week. To prove he had done so, he then went on a talk show in that language.

These feats are astounding, but even more incredible, to my mind, is that anyone can learn to learn at the rate of these memory athletes. The competitors of the World memory championships don’t have any special talent or natural ability. Rather, they all use a small set of memory techniques.

The earliest record we have of the techniques that make up the art of memory come from an ancient Roman treatise known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was written sometime between 86 and 82B.C.  The Rhetorica ad Herennium attributes the origins of memory techniques to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, who lived during the fifth century B.C.

These techniques universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who valued the art of memory as a tool of rhetoric and oratory.

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks, who used the techniques of the art of memory as tools for composition and meditation and the internalization of the virtues and vices. Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

By The Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Even the invention of the Guttenberg printing press and the relative availability of books had little effect on the status of a trained memory; books were considered aids to recall rather than a replacement for a well-stocked mind. It was only during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of The Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training, that the art of memory was driven underground.

If it is remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that gives birth to phenomenal performance across a variety of fields, then the case for training our memories using the techniques and methods of memory athletes is all the stronger. We don’t have to have been born geniuses to develop the kind of memory that would allow us to learn all the things we ever wanted, but never thought we could.


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