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We all know someone whose ability to recall information astounds and impresses us, but even Ol’ Photographic Memory McGee probably couldn’t hack it against the likes of some of these individuals. Their experiences, comparatively minor or earth-shatteringly major, contribute to science’s (or, in at least one case, the general public’s) overall research regarding the deep-seated mysteries of the human mind. Although, of course, the more answers we uncover, the more questions we need to ask.
Jill Price remembers everything she experiences or watches on television (especially regarding plane crashes), with the ability to pull answers out of her mind immediately. She’s become something of a media curiosity following a stint as a test subject at University of California – Irvine, and cognitive psychologists, neurologists, and other brain researchers found the highly organized way her mind operates an absorbing medical mystery. The most compelling (and most likely) theory about its origins stems from trauma levied in childhood, with extreme, compulsive memorization serving as a bulwark against further depression. Her memory beyond personal history, plane crashes, and TV shows — all of which she chronicles extensively in writing — exists as no more extraordinary than anyone else’s, which lends further credence to its basis in psychology rather than physiology.
And what have we learned here? This woman suffers from severe anxiety, seemingly stuck in a catch-22 where remembering everything piques the pain, but the memories make it easier for her to cope with day-to-day stressors. Remembering everything may sound totally awesome if not outright helpful in so many ways. Reality might say otherwise, especially in instances where total recall serves as more of a cage than anything else.
He was actually born with severe brain damage (even missing a corpus callosum) and FG syndrome rather than autism, but Kim Peek’s name went down in history as the inspiration behind Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt. Despite critical developmental and social impairments — he struggled with the basics of self-care his entire life — even in childhood, the man possessed a stellar gift for both speed reading and recalling even minute details of every book devoured. He read and even fully memorized as many as 12,000 books before his death at age 58, tackling them two pages at a time, and excelled at answering trivia questions as a result.
And what have we learned here? Marginalizing people based on birth defects is dumb, as they have just as much to offer the world as anyone else. They might grapple with some day-to-day minutia, but still display marvelous talents in other venues far surpassing their peers of average intelligence and development.
Most savants cannot articulate the details of how and why their memories work in such a curiously organized manner, but autistic-savants and their unique positions offer valuable insight into how the process works. Daniel Tammet is one such individual, with a mind like a scientific calculator capable of advanced computations (he can even recall pi up to 22,514 digits) and the ability to master foreign languages (such as Icelandic) in about a week. Through books like Born on a Blue Day, Embracing the Wide Sky, and Thinking in Numbers, he sheds light on both diagnoses and how they impact one another.
And what have we learned here? Science still has more than a few things to learn about autism spectrum disorders and savants alike, but individuals such as Tammet could provide them with a sort of neurological “Rosetta Stone.” So, basically, the lesson here is that there’s still a thousand more lessons to go (probably more) before forging a cogent understanding of how such minds operate.
Rather than a grandiose feat of memory strength, writer and journalist A.J. Jacobs opted to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping to become the “smartest person in the world” without possessing a particularly good or bad memory. And read he did. While the entire series never soaked up into his brain and bolstered the IQ like he had jokingly hoped, it did manifest itself in some strange, but certainly not illogical, ways. In talking with others, he started spouting off random factoids gleaned from the experience, to the point his Know-It-All behavior (Hey! That’s the name of his book!) started annoying and isolating conversation partners. So some elements of Encyclopedia Britannica managed to squirm their way into his consciousness, with the rest of it not quite sticking.
And what have we learned here? Smart people are awesome. Smart jerkfaces are not.
Three-time World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore once held the global record for memorizing a deck of randomly shuffled cards, boasting an astounding 24.68 seconds. All of his successes in memory sports, he claims, can be attributed to a simple mental system converting numbers to pictures. Pridmore’s How to be Clever details this and other techniques that have helped him claim victory in numerous competitions pitting mind against mind.
And what have we learned here? Try mnemonic devices when committing information to memory, because they just might come in handy once exam time rolls around. Pridmore’s outline might not work for everyone’s needs, of course, but there are hundreds of mindhacks both big and small to boost your skills out there.
One of the most prolific and influential inventors of all time never kept notes or models of his inventions, according to his autobiography. Rather, Nikola Tesla mocked up everything inside his own prodigious and handsome brain, repairing and adjusting and calculating mentally before successfully building a working device in his lab. Unlike most (but not all) of the oft-cited examples of human memory flitting about, memorization only played a smallish role in the overarching accomplishment. What makes Tesla such an impressive figure is how adroitly he analyzed his creations in such staunch detail. All of it worked perfectly in his visualizations before ever popping into life because of his memory’s own tinkering.
And what have we learned here? Knowing something is not necessarily the same as understanding it. While we need our memories, we also need lessons if we ever hope to grow and develop ourselves as well as our own personal projects. There’s absolutely no shame in trivial pursuits, obviously, but one must not confuse them with the wisdom gleaned from experience and in-depth research. Just because remember the War of the Roses happened in spurts between 1455 and 1485 doesn’t mean you know the complexities behind why the House of York and House of Lancaster were even fighting in the first place.
The fact that Ken Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! (and American game shows in general), which netted him well over $3,700,000 in winnings, is proof positive that the aforementioned trivial pursuits are nothing at all to sneer at! Despite hailing from a quiz bowl background, where he honed his passion for absorbing as much information as humanly possible, Jennings wound up just as stunned by his television success as anyone. He has since parlayed his ubiquity into books and board games meant to share a love of lifelong learning.
And what have we learned here? Just because you know the complexities behind why the House of York and House of Lancaster were even fighting in the first place doesn’t mean you remember the War of the Roses happened in spurts between 1455 and 1485. There’s absolutely no shame in the wisdom gleaned from experience and in-depth research, obviously, but one must not confuse them with trivial pursuits. While we need lessons, we also need our memories if we ever hope to grow and develop ourselves as well as our own personal projects. Understanding something is not necessarily the same as knowing it.
When gazing at Stephen Wiltshire’s absolutely gorgeous, heavily detailed drawings and paintings of London, Tokyo, Dubai, New York, Hong Kong, Rome, Jerusalem, and other major international hubs, it’s even more astounding to know he creates them from memory. After only seeing the scene for a brief moment. Sometimes even once. Diagnosed as autistic at three years of age, his line work and painstaking attention to all the subtleties and nuances of a vibrant cityscape have earned him international acclaim, and fans can purchase his books and prints if they can’t afford the originals. Check out his panoramas for some of the most drop-dead amazing artistic feats in recent history, too.
And what have we learned here? Memory molds the creative process far beyond actors and actresses memorizing lines for their latest plays and films. If your self-expression could use a little oomph to get itself chugging along, try pulling from the good times and bad times for inspiration. Just be careful with the latter, because we don’t want to be responsible for anyone experiencing overwhelming negative emotions.
Before winning the U.S. Memory Championship in 2006, this science writer considered individuals with extremely amazing memories were “savants” rather than ordinary folks — a perception permeating popular thought, of course. But strategies developed and utilized by the ancient Greeks grant competitors of all backgrounds (even amnesiacs!) an edge when memorizing everything from poems to phone books. Experimenting with these tenets astounded Joshua Foer and eventually led him to research memory competitions and even start taking part. He references scientific studies noting that individuals with astounding memories do not possess brain structures or intelligence levels any different than anyone else.
And what have we learned here? Mindhacking the memory isn’t the exclusive domain of some beautiful and unique snowflakes. It takes some practice and research into how the brain works first, but almost anyone can enjoy mad memorization skills if they put enough effort into trying. Give Foer’s tips and tricks a chance to see how well they might work for you!