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No. 26: Mar-Apr 1983

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Everyone A Memory Prodigy

Our handbook Unfathomed Mind presents many cases of exceptional memory. Without question, some people can reproduce incredible blocks of words and numbers as well as drawings, music, etc. The question is: Is such exceptional memory the consequence of an exceptional brain or just long training? Those who hold the first position believe an anomaly exists because:

(1) The difference between normal memory and exceptional memory is so large; and

(2) People with exceptional memory seem to employ different mental processes in transferring information into long-term memory, notably visual techniques like 'photographic' memory.

The authors of this article present several cases where subjects with normal memory have been trained to where they perform nearly as well as memory experts. The key seems to be the use of mnemonic devices and other methods of imposing some sort of order or meaning on the information involved. To illustrate, a chess master can usually recall the positions of all the pieces on a chessboard after a quick glance. But if the chessmen are arranged randomly and meaninglessly, his memory is reduced to near-normal. The gist is that long prac-tice and the application of mnemonic devices can vastly improve anyone's memory and, in consequence, memory prodigies are not really so anomalous.

(Ericsson, K. Anders, and Chase, William G.; "Exceptional Memory," American Scientist, 70:607, 1982.)

Comment. The real anomaly here may be the fact that the human memory and related memory faculties seem orders of magnitude better than needed for survival. How did such capabilities evolve? Of what use is a prodigious memory to an Ice Age man facing a cave bear? Are we dealing with prescient evolution, like the moth described above, holding capabilities in reserve until they are really needed.

From Science Frontiers #26, MAR-APR 1983. � 1983-2000 William R. Corliss