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No. 40: Jul-Aug 1985

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Mnemonism not so easy!

"This paper reports a systematic study of a man (T.E.) with astonishing mnemonic skills. After a brief description of his most favoured mnemonic technique, the 'figure alphabet,' his performance and the mnemonic techniques used on five classical memory tasks are described. These are: one task involving both short- and long-term memory (the Atkinson-Shiffrin 'keeping track' task), two tasks involving just longterm memory (recall of number matrices and the effects of imagery and deep structure complexity upon recall), and two tasks involving just short-term retention of individual verbal items and digit span. Whenever possible, T.E.'s performance was compared with that of normal subjects, and also with other mnemonists who have been studied in the past. There was no evidence to suggest that T.E. has any unusual basic memory abilities; rather he employs mnemonic techniques to aid memory, and the evidence suggests that previous mnemonists who have been studied by psychologists have used very similar techniques."

The "figure alphabet" employed by T.E. was used in Europe as early as the mid-1700s. The Hindus had a Sanskrit version even earlier. Basically, each digit is represented by a consonant sound or sounds:

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0  
TNMRLJKFPZ
DNg  G-soft  G-hard  VBS
Th  ChQC-soft  
ShC-hard

The letters AEIOU and WHY have no numerical value and are used to build up words. Thus, 21 can be NeT, NuT, aNT, auNT, etc. The system is phonetic in that the digits are sounds rather than the letters themselves. Silent letsters do not count and double letters count as single.

In one of the tests, T.E. was presented with strings of digits on a computer screen at the rate of one per second. In spite of the rapid rate of presentation, T.E. used the figure alphabet to convert digit strings into several words. Generally, he converted three digits into one two-syllable word. Twelve to 14 digits might be remembered as four or five two-syllable words. In this test, T.E. could remember more than 12 digits in the strings as they flashed by at one string per second.

(Gordon, Paul, et al; "One Man's Memory: A Study of a Mnemonist," British Journal of Psychology, 75:1, 1984.)

Comment. Two comments here: (The figure alphabet seems rather cumbersome at first, but its long history suggests that it dovetails nicely with human memory processes; and (2) Several ancient languages were written without the vowels, like the figure alphabet. Could there be a connection?

From Science Frontiers #40, JUL-AUG 1985. 1985-2000 William R. Corliss