The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift (Study Myths Part 2)

You’ve all heard people say “I have a bad memory.” Perhaps you’ve even said that about yourself. This type of statement reflects how we think about memory. We talk about memory like we might talk about our hair-color: it’s something we’re stuck with.

The basic idea is that each of us is born either having a good memory or having a bad memory. Accordingly, we tend to think (often unconsciously) that the world is divided between smart guys with good memories and dumb guys with bad memories. If you’re born in the latter camp of human beings, there isn’t much you can do about it.

The problem with this way of understanding memory is not simply that it is false but that it can be self-fulfilling. Believing we have been programmed with a bad memory, we fail to take the steps necessary for improving it.

From our earliest school days many of us unconsciously imbibe the myth that our ability to remember things is hardwired into our brains. In her groundbreaking book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck showed that elementary school experiences often reinforce habits of mind antithetical to success through inadvertently training many children think of intelligence as fixed. Specifically, children come to unconsciously assume that school tasks are performance opportunities to test how smart they are instead of invitations to stretch their intelligence further.

Summarizing Dweck’s research in the Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmondson commented that

For these children, performing poorly on an assignment or a test would demonstrate that they lacked intelligence rather than indicating that they had more to learn. Believing that the point of execution is to demonstrate competence, they go out of their way to pick easier tasks. Of course, this means they lose out when it comes to learning.

The “Fixed Mindset” vs. The “Growth Mindset”

The idea that our strengths or weaknesses are innate to us is what Dweck calls “the fixed mindset.”  By contrast, what Dweck calls the “growth mindset” is based on the belief that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts. This mindset can be powerful in motivating children to improve their grades and succeed in life.

Dweck summarized twenty years of research by saying “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” This is a point we have made over and over again on this blog both in the contexts of our discussions about neuroplasticity and the psychology of aging.

What We Can Learn from Mental Athletics

Let’s apply these principles to memory. If it were true that a good memory comes from being graced with special cognitive abilities (“the fixed mindset”), then this would certainly be true of memory champions. I’m talking about the types of people who compete in the Annual World Memory Championships, and who do such spectacular feats of memory like remembering 4,140 random binary digits (collections of 1’s and 0’s) in half an hour, or people who can memorize the precise order of 28 shuffled packs of playing cards in one hour. (A favorite pastime of memory athletes is to invite their friends to an evening of “playing binary.” If you walk into a bar and someone asks you out to play binary, you can be pretty certain you’re in the presence of a mental athlete.)

There are people like this in the world and they meet every year in the memory championships of their respective countries. The really good mental athletes attend the international memory championships where they try to set new world records in events like “speed numbers.” The current record in speed numbers is held jointly by Wang Feng and Johannes Mallow, who remembered 500 numbers in rows of 40 in five minutes. (For more information, see ‘World Memory Championships: the current record holders’.)

The surprising thing about these memory champions is that, cognitively speaking, they are ordinary people just like the rest of us. When journalist Joshua Foer reported on the American memory championships, the contestants all told him the same thing: they were not born with exceptional memories, nor did they have particularly higher-than average IQ’s. It’s all about the techniques they use for studying and remembering.

This may seem like false modesty, but the science backs it up. In 2003, the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience’ published the results of brain analyses that were done on World Memory Champions and compared the results to the same analyses that were conducted on a control group. The study was seeking to discover whether superior memory was driven by either structural brain differences or exceptional intellectual ability. Using brain imaging technology, the researchers found that there was no structural brain difference between superior memorizers vs. the merely average memorizers represented in the control. This is not really surprising, but what came as more of a shock was when neuropsychological tests were performed on the same two groups. Instead of measuring brain structures as the previous tests had done, the neuropsychological tests were designed to measure IQ and raw intellectual ability. Though it seems strange, the neuropsychological tests found that the mental athletes possessed merely average intellectual ability and were not possessed with higher than average IQs. As ”Nature Neuroscience’ reported, “The superior memorizers were not exceptional in their performance on tests of general cognitive ability; they were in the high-average range in both general verbal and non-verbal skills, comparable to normal controls.”

In short, this study completely destroyed the common assumption that a great memory is a gift. Superior memory is not something we are born with; it’s something we develop based on how we use our brains. This is empirical proof for what Carol Dweck calls “the growth mindset.”

The Origins of Superior Memory

How does a person use his or her brain to develop exceptional memory? If a great memory isn’t a gift, then where does it come from? Why is it that someone like Chao Lu could memorized the first 67,890 of PI after practicing for only 4 days, while the rest of us can’t even remember where we left our keys?

The researchers who put together the ‘Nature Neuroscience’ study found that the difference came entirely down to “the mechanisms underlying the cognitive process.” In short, the superior memorizers were following the right techniques for learning and memory – techniques that were practiced by the ancient Greeks and known throughout antiquity, yet largely lost in the modern world. In particular, they were found to be practicing the method of Mnemonics and Elaborative Encoding and the Method of loci (also known as the memory palace method, which you can learn about here or in future blog posts.) Some of these methods are those we use here at TSM to help psychology students pass their licensure exam to become licensed psychologists.

This should give hope to all of us. Learning what we need to know for anything—whether to pass a complex test like the EPPP or just to become a more educated person—has hardly anything to do with innate ability. But it does have everything to do with following the right techniques.

From Journalist to Memory Champion

One person who was skeptical of the “growth mindset” was journalist Joshua Foer. When he reported on the national memory championship, Foer was approached by memory champion Ed Cooke, who told him that anyone can become a memory champion by simply following the right techniques. Cooke explained that even an average person like Foer could compete at the championships the following year if he learned the right techniques and trained himself.

Foer decided to try it out for himself. He learned the right techniques and the following year he returned to the memory championships not as a journalist but as a contestant. Quite to his surprise, Foer actually won. Not only did he win, but he set a new American record for the event speed cards. He describes the entire journey from journalist to memory champion in his fascinating book Moonwalking with Einstein.  The book is also a fascinating historical overview of various memory techniques which were widely practiced throughout antiquity.

Most people are not familiar with these various memory techniques and so they conceive the learning process as one of continual struggle. Nowhere is this more evident then when it comes to studying to pass the Psychology Licensing Exam (the EPPP). For many would-be psychologists, the approach to the acquisition and consolidation of content is often little more than sitting down with a cup of coffee, some flash-cards and a highlighter, thinking that the more they go over material the greater will be their chances of success. We have shown in our blog post on “The ‘Just Study Harder’ Myth“, that this approach is not only useless, but can actually be antithetical to true success.

Memory and its Advantages

Perhaps you’ve always thought of yourself as having a bad memory. After reading this article I hope you will instead think of your memory as undeveloped.

The idea of developing your memory may seem quixotic in our age, when we have so many external memory aids that seem to render unnecessary the art of remembering. It often feels as if there is no longer any point to remembering anything when you can just look everything up on Google. As Peter Suderman wrote, “It’s no longer terribly efficient to use our brains to store information.” Or as Clive Thompson observed in Wired Magazine, “I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online. In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. …we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.” Thompson’s experience resonates with how many of us are coming to feel: there is little point any more to trying to remember anything.

Obviously if you have to remember content for a test like the psychology licensing exam, there is a pragmatic need to develop memory skills. But ultimately the long-term advantages to developing a good memory cannot be quantified in purely pragmatic terms. A good memory is important to human flourishing in the same way that a well-rounded personality is important to human flourishing. This is because, to quote from our earlier article about memory, “our memories play a crucial role in making us who we are since the depth of our personality hinges on the mind’s ability to consolidate our memories into schemas, to let everything we remember foment and crystallize into wisdom. For there can be no knowledge without memory, and there can be no wisdom without knowledge.”

Memory thus leads to virtuous feed-back loops that increase understanding and intelligence. The more you know the better your memory can work, because the more mental hooks there are on which to hang things; but reciprocally the better your memory works, the easier it is to learn more things because your brain has a context in which to place them. It makes a wonderful cycle that was described by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein:

…even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

…memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it….

Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory.”



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