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Does Natural Exceptional Memory Exist?

03/22/2013 07:33 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In his fascinating and informative TEDTalk, "Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do," journalist Joshua Foer describes what he learned about the nature of memory from his research and personal experiences competing in the USA Memory Championship. In his talk, Foer describes an ancient memory technique called "mnemonic encoding" that allows us to take information that is lacking in personal meaning and transform it in a way that makes connections with our already existing storehouse of personal memories, thereby increasing the chances it will be remembered in the future.

Foer is on solid scientific grounding here. There is a general consensus among cognitive psychologists that the function of memory is not literal recall, but to make meaning. There is a real practical purpose to simplifying experience by discarding the seemingly irrelevant details, as it allows us to adapt to a broader class of future situations. After all, remembering the reason why a lion attacked you is far more important for your future safety involving lions than recalling the precise number of spots the lion had on his particular body.

Foer is also correct that deliberately learning mnemonic encoding strategies can help all of us recall seemingly random information. K. Anders Ericsson and others have shown the importance of mnemonic encoding strategies both for recalling random information as well as helping us achieve high levels of expert performance.

During the end of his talk, however, Foer makes the following statement:

"We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some innate gift, but that is not the case."

I'd like to unpack this statement a bit. For one, I think it lacks the kind of nuance that could actually bring us even closer to understanding the nature and function of memory. But it also isn't entirely correct. There are, in fact, people who have exceptional memory who have never explicitly taught themselves memory strategies.

Consider a study by psychologists John Wilding and Elizabeth Valentine. They recruited three groups of participants:

1. World Memory Champions

2. Everyday people claiming to have superior memory

3. "Control" people who reported having no special memory ability

All of the participants were asked to memorize a variety of information, including stories, faces, names for faces, word lists, telephone numbers, and snowflakes. Crucially, some of the tasks were more conducive to mnemonic encoding than others. What did they find?

The "naturals" (those with superior memory claiming they don't use mnemonic methods) performed above average across the board on all of the memory tasks. In contrast, the "strategists" (those who reported they do rely heavily on traditional memory techniques) performed much better than the "naturals" on tasks that were conducive to mnemonic encoding, but performed much worse on tasks that weren't as easily facilitated by such strategies. The researchers concluded that it is indeed possible to find people with exceptional natural memory, although the use of mnemonic techniques does allow one to far exceed the natural variation of human memory capacity.

Their findings are consistent with decades of intelligence research. Intelligence researchers have long found that people differ widely in a broad ability for "general memory and learning." While this ability is strongly correlated with global IQ scores, it is a partially independent broad factor of human intelligence.

Now consider prodigies. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies. Most of the prodigies reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10. Interestingly, there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven. Clearly, the magic bullet to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory -- the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information. To the best of my knowledge, none of the prodigies in their sample deliberately set out to learn mnemonic encoding memory techniques, or deliberately went through years of working memory training on Cogmed. Undoubtedly, the natural exceptional ability of prodigies to encode and manipulate new information contributed to their accelerated rate of learning and performance in their domain (although certainly other personal characteristics and environmental supports also contributed).

When Ruthsatz asked him to memorize 28 states presented in random order, he could immediately recall them forwards and backwards with ease, and could still do so when asked again three months later! -- Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

For a fascinating example, watch this video of the prodigy Jake Barnett. From an early age Barnett was intensely fascinated with space and numbers, and could spontaneously remember numerical information easily. His memory clearly goes beyond numbers, however. When Ruthsatz asked him to memorize 28 states presented in random order, he could immediately recall them forwards and backwards with ease, and could still do so when asked again three months later! To be sure, Jake might not be able to naturally win a national memory championship without deliberately learning some tried-and-true memory techniques, but it's hard to deny his natural memory for random information isn't exceptional!

What's going on in all of these cases, and how can our understanding of these extremes of human memory inform the function of memory in all of us? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question, and much more research is needed on the cognitive mechanisms that support superior memory. But at the moment, I like to think of it this way. All of us have exceptional memory in our own ways. Most of us have exceptional natural memory for remembering personally relevant information such as the location of objects in our house, the day our child was born, how we felt during our first kiss, and the weather at our wedding. A minority of people, however, have unique brain connections (due to biology as well as prior life experiences) that allow them to spontaneously -- without the use of conscious strategies -- make meaning of certain kinds of information that aren't as meaningful for the rest of us.

Nevertheless, I believe they are using the same fundamental cognitive mechanisms to spontaneously encode new information as the rest of us. All of us are wired to make meaning in this world. Foer is absolutely correct when he notes the importance of attention, engagement, and depth of processing for recalling information. But I believe it's a mistake to explain all cases of exceptional memory for seemingly "random" information as a result of conscious mnemonic encoding. Besides limiting our understanding of the function of memory more generally, it also downplays another remarkable feature of humanity: we all differ in regards to what spontaneously captivates our attention, and what we actually find meaningful in this world.

If you'd like to learn more about different kinds of minds and the many paths to greatness, check out 'Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined', forthcoming from Basic Books.

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