A Bad Article on Why Memory Techniques "Only Work for Smart People"

The article is here.

This is such a bad article that I felt like I needed to share it with the rest of you.

Why is this such a common argument that people make when they want to say that memory techniques are useless? In my experience, this is the second most common argument against mnemonics and it is by far the worse. What’s really bad about this article is that this guy supposedly did research, but you can clearly tell that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It doesn’t even seem like he even tried these techniques!


I don’t know what is IQ.
I have been trying to teach memory techniques to students, and from my limited experience, “smart” students learn faster --much faster-- how to apply the techniques. Those who already love to learn, as soon as they discover the techniques they realize that they were missing precisely those techniques. Those who love learning know themselves better, and these techniques are like the missing piece of a puzzle they have been working on for years.
I don’t know if it is that the “less smart” students are more lazy, or they lack motivation, or don’t have certain work habits or other unknown reasons to me, but in a sense, yes, these techniques work better for smart people.
In concrete, I have find very difficult with some students to help them to:

  1. connect data with images;
  2. understand and value the function of these techniques;
  3. be constant in the use of these techniques.

It looks like a misguided website in general. :confused:

A few comments on the article’s statements:

I don’t deny photographic/eidetic memory is possible. I don’t doubt that some people, such as the late super-savant Kim Peek, can do this. However, I am much more skeptical that such a skill can be taught, and if so, that is not just a function of IQ (or some other innate, biological trait).

Photographic memory probably doesn’t exist, and most people can learn the techniques to a useful extent. Not everyone can be a world-class memory champion, but any competitive sport is like that.

–Using a mnemonic device (such as a ‘memory palace’) still requires one memorize the mnemonic. If I ask you to memorize ten historical dates, a trick may be to associate these dates with a mental visualization, but you must still remember ten associations, which is still not easy.

I think that most people can learn to read letters as words, so most people have the potential to learn to read numbers as words too. They are just different symbols. (Not everyone has the motivation though.)

–Memory training has never been replicated under a controlled environment with multiple subjects, and then the results published in a reputable journal (and then the results successfully replicated by other researchers). The very few studies that exist only have one or two subjects.

Anyone who uses the techniques knows that they work. It just takes a few afternoons of practice to see results. It doesn’t require a scientist.

Without controlling for IQ is is impossible to know if feats of memory are really just feats of IQ, or a specific skill that can be learned (I am very certain it is the former).

It’s definitely a skill that is learned. You can’t put people in a room, line them up by IQ score, and then predict how many digits they are going to memorize on that alone.

–One study showed that that training is non-transferable. This means if one learns a sequence of numbers, the skill fails when one tries to recite them backwards or a new set of numbers.

Most people can recall the numbers backwards too.

Furthermore, I have yet to see a study that demonstrates a so-called ‘meta technique’ that could allow anyone to quickly memorize and recall anything, such as a list of complicated legal or medical terminology. So for example, a technique that works for number recall, and then afterwards, legal jargon.

Memory palaces and peg lists? You can’t memorize notes as quickly as numbers, but you can increase your memorization ability by using the techniques. Another example is here.

–If the above were possible (if it were actually possible, regardless of IQ, to develop a meta-technique to retain and recall information quickly), the economic consequences would be huge. Productivity would surge. Students would be able to learn material as fast as they can read it, without having to spend hours re-reading, making notes, and highlighting.

That isn’t how the techniques work. They aren’t effortless, but they are more effective than not using the techniques, and when it comes to certain kinds of information, like numbers, they work extremely well.

An IQ of 160 is so uncommon that most people in their lifetime will never encounter someone so intelligent, and is considered upper threshold for the reliability of IQ testing. …I think there is a trend or problem of super-geniuses, such as Cal Newport (a Ph.D. from MIT, which is as smart as it gets) who try to promote this mythos that average people can do that they do, which may be inspiring, but possibly unrealistic and not backed by science.

The obsession with IQ on that site is misguided. The most interesting thing I’ve noticed about IQ scores is that they don’t mean that a person has critical thinking skills, knowledge about the world, or good ideas. It’s just a measurement of a certain kind of cognitive processing ability. It doesn’t measure all kinds of cognitive ability (social information processing is one example). Not all kinds of cognitive ability are immutable. Not all measures of a person’s worth have anything to do with IQ.

I wouldn’t take that site too seriously. Besides being wrong about many things on that page, it puts way too much emphasis on IQ scores in general, appears to advocate for eugenics, and the site’s name alludes to a backwards movement that believes democracy is bad. :confused:


I know what you mean. I’ve taught memory techniques to groups of people in person, and some of them pick things up much easier than others. I don’t know how they would score on IQ tests, but I suspect that appearance of “smart” comes from education, micro-culture, and motivation as much as anything else.

I’m not convinced that all the people who fail can’t learn the techniques. Many of them just don’t have motivation for it. I’ve met people who don’t read books either. They aren’t necessarily unable to perform the cognitive task, but they haven’t developed a habit of lifelong learning and they don’t see the point.


Yes. It is a bit a tautology:

“smart people are smarter because they do smarter things…”


Hi Josh,

Interested in your lessons. Any information?

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I used to host weekly in-person memory club meetups and did some events at local museums. I stopped a few years ago though. The activities were things like taking people through a park to memorize the US Presidents, number memorization, bones of the body, peg lists, etc.

Most people could memorize things like all of the Presidents and bones of the body in about 60-90 minutes. Learning number memorization takes longer and isn’t for everyone, because they need to have the motivation to create the image system.

At the museum events we would have a table with small activities. Random people could stop by and learn how to memorize the beginning of the periodic table of elements. Most of them didn’t believe they would be able to do it, but they usually could. :slight_smile:


I think motivation plays a big role in whether or not you can use memory techniques effectively. Some people tend to think there’s some kind of “trick” or that the techniques either work instantly or not at all.

When I started memory training, I think it was around 2017, I wasn’t able to visualize images very well. But training for a few months, just about 15 minutes per day, helped immensely. The point is: Many people aren’t willing to work for the goal they want to achieve; they’d just like to have the result before even starting to practice (even if it wouldn’t take that much practice). When the result doesn’t come instantly, people tend to come up with excuses, like “I’m not smart enough”, (which should rather be “I’m not willing to work hard enough”).


I really wonder when, people will stop using genetics as an excuse to give up…


I guess the author of this post has never sang the alphabet song, or learned to read music (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge or FACE), or tried to remember directions (Never Eat Shredded Wheat), or learned the word ROYGBIV, touched his knuckles to find out how which months have 31 days.

Those are all mnemonics too, and everyone uses them. A memory palace is just a better one that you make up for yourself. We can all be better at remembering.


I believe that we cannot ignore the article of this stu…id. He not only doesn"t know anything about mnemonics, but also about the neuroscience. He simply has no right to write about memory without understanding this topic.

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Wow, I thought you were exaggerating, but no, that really is a horrible article.


Maybe not the best article out there, but definitely not the worst either… think about it for a minute…

I don’t deny […] is possible. I don’t doubt that some people […] can do this. However, I am much more skeptical that such a skill can be taught, and if so, that is not just a function of IQ (or some other innate, biological trait).

I put the […] so you guys don’t get too hung up on the examples he put there. The initial question here is whether learning memory skills is like learning how to walk or if it’s more along the lines of learning tightrope walking.

You guys already mentioned…

You guys also gotta consider survivorship bias when you say that

…what about the people who used the techniques, didn’t get anywhere with them, and don’t use them anymore? I think the initial question that is raised is fair… maybe the arguments throughout the article don’t do the best job at convincing you that for the “general population” this may or may not be true…

Consider the forum you are posting on right now… who will disagree with you? And there are quite a few posts on here from people talking about how they tried to convince their friends an family to try memory techniques as well and that they weren’t “interested.”

Learning arithmetic isn’t hard either and lots of people are bad at basic math. You should be able to teach it to everyone though… what’s the reason that doesn’t seem to work either? Not being morbidly obese shouldn’t the that hard either… etc. etc.

…check illiteracy rates to see how that argument cannot be universally applied.

I mean WOW…

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This article makes no sense and forgets one basic thing, you can learn to be better at IQ tests. A memory expert would have an in built advantage in taking an IQ test because of that.
The really interesting thing about IQ tests that he also seems to forget is that they have a race component and the races that score higher on the tests all practice memorising with the Ashkenazi Jews being the highest. I know this is a big deal in the US because African Americans score lowest however I wonder how Africans score? In Australia they did Kim’s Game testing and Aboriginal Australians were so much better than everyone else. My point being I wonder if it not a race thing, I wonder if it a cultural thing so if you practice memory you get better at using memory which is what all of the anecdotal evidence points to regardless of IQ.
More importantly I wonder if getting better at using memory increases your IQ? I wonder for example what Dominic O’Brien’s IQ was before he started memory training and I wonder what his score would be now?
I am amazed no one has done this as a study at university taking a freshman class and testing every student at the start and the end. This would be especially interesting because Todd Sampson in his Hack My Brain series had a creativity component to using your brain better.

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I could be wrong, but I find it implausible that an adult needs to be ‘smart’ to use memory techniques because my children have used memory palaces and peg lists as young as 3 years old. A three year old is not smarter than even a moderately below average IQ adult.

I think a bigger predictor is one’s feelings towards imagination or ‘weirdness,’ and having a strong desire to have a better memory that makes you want to put in the upfront and maintenance work. A lot of people simply feel uncomfortable imagining absurd things and think that their memories are sufficient for them and so the work doesn’t justify the reward.


Memory techniques are definitely akin more to walking than tightrope walking. Any normal person can learn even the most basic form of association, even people who can’t see images in their heads.

There have been a multitude of studies that already show that just learning these techniques can help everyone. I do think that whether or not you continue learning and using these techniques is more a function of motivation than anything else. The reason why most people stop using mnemonics isn’t because they’re not smart enough, it’s because they’re satisficing and falling into old habits. Also, just because people stop using a skill after learning it says nothing about a skill’s efficacy or whether or not it’s hard to use or not.

Also, about your illiteracy comments, literacy rates have only gone up as standards of living have gone up. Being literate is a function of a good education and a good environment, it’s not a function of being smart or not. For example, many Latin countries have had their literacy rates skyrocket through the decades through education and better living conditions.


Allow me to quote yourself back to you…

…and since you also said in the same post…

…so, I’ll assume first of all, your classmates are just a ‘little smarter’ than your average Joe; after all, college is considered higher education. Secondly, even looking at your performance and you explaining to them what you do, they are still not motivated to try them.

Hope this last one let’s you realize your own bias towards memory techniques, so keep that in mind when reading the ‘article’ that you’ve linked to. Of course, it’s not great writing or deeply researched… at the same time the author never referred to ‘intelligence,’ but rather IQ scores, which is not the same.

He cited Ben Pridmore’s 159 IQ score, Boris Konrad passing the Mensa IQ test, and research the latter has done…

This does not answer the question whether IQ is a necessity to perform at world-class level in memory sports or if it is just because intelligent people are more likely to enjoy constantly challenging themselves in cognitive tasks. But it was quite apparent that nearly all of them had really high (>130) IQ scores.

…not saying there is causation, but definitely correlation… and you shouldn’t conclude more than that but it is what it is. I’m not saying I agree with the author but this obviously supports his point…

I decided to do some further research as to the IQs of memory champions, and not surprisingly, my hypothesis was confirmed that memory champions aren’t just slightly smarter than average in terms of IQ, but many, many magnitudes so. It’s not even close to average IQ.

…he’s also willing to accept answers other than IQ…

If not IQ, there may be some other innate, biological trait that accounts for superior memory. Maybe memory champions have some anomaly that allows them to link data with visualizations, that if ordinary people were to try they would make little to no progress.

I assume you mean ‘literacy’… that was in response to @Josh’s comment about ‘most people.’ Imagine you told me a memory palace / memory journey is easy to navigate seeing how most people know how to drive a car. Clearly, there are people what either don’t have a license or don’t drive even though they have one… so there is a bit of an issue with that kind of assumption.

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That doesn’t really support his point. His original contention is that there is no proof memory techniques can be taught to people in general, and he is actually more confident than not that the can’t be. Showing that memory champions invariably have high IQ’s doesn’t in any way support that point. That would be like saying that the fact that only tall people are in the NBA supports the idea that short people can’t make a basket or dribble the ball. The author should’ve paused to take the time to think of a similar analogy so he wouldn’t make the same mistake with memory sports.


It does not support “that” point, but is does support his point about IQ. Anyways, I don’t feel like making excuses for a badly written blog that gets called an “article” for whatever reason.

Nope, it’d be like saying “short people won’t make it into the NBA (statistically speaking).”

So how does that work with three year olds… they get mnemonics for potty training…?

I don’t think I have that bias. Among my students some certainly failed, and I don’t know the real reason behind this failure.

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