Savantism and Memory Competitions

Don’t know if anyone else has thought about this.

Up until now the memory competitions has proven that this is something anyone can do if with the right technique and amount of work, but I think that it’s just a matter of time before someone with extraordinary capabilities comes in.

As an example if anyone has seen Kim Peek, you would understand what I’m talking about. This man could read two pages at a time with ridiculous speed and comprehension. Would be interesting to know if his abilities could have been transferred to any of the memory disciplines.

Savantism on this level is quite rare. Another example could be someone with synesthesia coupling this with other memory techniques and making a supercharged system.

You can talk about “genetic advantages” in other sports as well, but in this field it would be really apparent.


I’m interested in exceptional memories and there is some good neuropsychological litterature on it (Luria’s “the mind of a mnemonist”, “The exceptional brain”, Daniel Tammet of course). Synesthesia provides a code, and the encoding process is automatic, so it is extremely efficient. But it has a major drawback : the synesthesia code cannot be modified, you can’t organise it the way you want. So my guess is that it’s not so much a gift if you want to compete in memory championships ! Shereshevsky has the method of loci directly implemented for basically every experience he lives, but in general, he is not able to understand fiction texts, because he visualises everything, so the “image” that the text is trying to convey is overflowed by his own uncontrolable images… Also, Daniel Tammet had difficulties to read numbers which were not written coherently with how his brain visualise them. Control is a good thing to have :slight_smile:

Kim Peek has “out of the (normal) brain” capacities, which are clearly not accessible, no matter how much time we spend on this. Subitizing, for example : it’s the ability to “know” that there are such a number of objects without counting. It’s believed to be an untrainable “basic” brain capacity, and Kim Peek is outstanding at it.

Hi, Timothée, and welcome to the forum.

I would be interested in your thoughts on the neuropsychological literature on S and Daniel Tammet. From my reading of it, for both S and Tammet, there is evidence that their abilities can be explained entirely through training - see my comment earlier today here.

I don’t think this has been demonstrated scientifically.

Do you have any evidence that this has been tested for Kim Peek under controlled conditions?

I am very skeptical about claims of subitizing large numbers where this hasn’t been very rigorously controlled - it’s an area rife with dubious claims.

The World Memory Championships started in 1991 (according to their site) so these “savants” have had 20 years to come in and do their thing, and probably since time began to actually prove that they can in other ways.

I don’t think it’s happening.

Memory sports is still in it’s infancy. 20 years is not a long time (especially because these conditions are quite rare).

Interesting article:

Thank you very much for the debunking, I was still believing in the rain man myth : I’ll have to do my homework on Kim Peek.
I mostly agree with you on Tammet. However, I don’t think that you can say that their abilities can be explained entirely through training : first because they probably never trained.
We are not blank slates : we can do what our brains are equiped to do, and there are limitations to what we can train. There are individual differences in cognitive functions. Take any definition of intelligence you wan’t, you will find some genetic differences in it. Synesthesia is an interesting example. I don’t think that we know if we can acquire synesthesia through training, but we know that it has some genetic bases. Luria reports that there are many cases of synesthesia in S family (I don’t remember if both parents or only one). If synesthesia is caused by “making more neural links”, this processus would be controlled by neurotransmitters, and that’s pretty much genetic : we can’t train that. (I still believe that we can train tremendously more than what we know we can train today ! O formidable and surprising brain)

Yes, true, my bad. The point is that I believe they had some innate implementation of the loci method.

If they appear to perform at the same level as trained mnemonists, what evidence have you seen that makes you think they have an additional advantage?

I’m keeping on open mind, but I haven’t seen any evidence that either has any memory ability beyond what can be explained by memory techniques. :slight_smile:

It was claimed that Shereshevsky had better abilities, but it’s difficult to tell what he could really do, since there isn’t much hard evidence.

Actually, I don’t really believe that what they have is an advantage :).
Still, S was able to recall meaningless lists he had learned like 10 years ago, without anticipation that he would have to recall them. We have to believe Luria on this point, but this capacity, if real, is not incompatible with anything we know. And it was not a gift, it was a neurological dysfunctionment. S was also able to change his body temperature or increase his heartbeat rate by imagining himslef running after a train for example. “The mind of a mnemonist” is a fascinating book, and I believe that Luria is sincere in his account (there are much weirder stuff in neuropsychology).

It’s impossible to know, but I think that it’s good to be very cautious about memory claims, because there is evidence showing that some mnemonists are much more advanced than even the top researchers in their fields. :slight_smile:

Another thing that could explain the long term recall: what if S might have been obsessive-compulsive about autobiographical memories and he went home and wrote down the information and reviewed it many times?

I don’t know much about that. Are there other people who can change their body temperature and heartbeat to the same degree with practice? I used to practice changing my heartbeat for fun when I was a kid, so I assume that many people must have stumbled across this pastime. :slight_smile:

Yep, true, and I’m personnally quite disappointed that memory researchers don’t actually use memory techniques themselves. It often leads to some sad misunderstandings. I’ve not met many researchers that understand the potential of the method of loci.
Still : brains do have individual variations and we are not equal in what we can or cannot accomplish, so I tend to believe that there are weird exceptions regarding to memory too.

I agree you should be skeptical in this matter, but I still believe that there are people capable beyond something that anyone can do with enough training (and the standard method of loci).

I remember one guy that injured his head, and supposedly from that day he can say what kind of weather it has been on all dates. Also you have a musical savant called Derek. He can supposedly reproduce and remember every piece of music he has heard only once. He is actually blind. I don’t know if he has been blind from his birth, but if so that would be very interesting in terms of how he stores this information …

[quote=Josh Cohen]

I’ve seen some monks on TV that upped their body temperature to dry clothes. Also I heard of a another guy that does this to the extreme (tested him in an ice bath).

Luria’s “Mind of a mnemonist” describes S as having written down some of his performances after he heard them, as well as facts like phone numbers. S apparently said that he wrote these things down in order to “help him forget”, rather than help him remember. That is, he says he has extreme difficulty in forgetting things, resulting in a cluttered memory, but that writing things down helps him to clear his memory of these things.

Luria appears to fully believe this story. He doesn’t seem to consider that this explanation could just as well be a showman’s explanation, that conveniently gives him an excuse for having written notes. It also gives a convenient excuse for a showman who can’t remember an earlier performance, because he can say he successfully forgot it by writing things down.

I think this says a lot more about Luria’s lack of skepticism than it does about S’s memory.

I don’t know of any direct evidence that there were many cases of synesthesia in S’s family, and would be interested to see any.

Luria’s “Mind of a mnemonist” does briefly mention his family, for example, it says the following:

"There is some evidence that S.'s parents demonstrated peculiarities of memory similar to those described here. Ac-cording to S. when his father owned a bookstore, he could easily recall where any book was located; and his mother, a devout Jewish woman, could quote long paragraphs from the Torah. According to information we obtained in 1936 from Professor P. Dahle, who made observations of S.'s family, a nephew also had a remarkable memory. "

By this account there is some evidence that other member’s of S’s family demonstrated unusual memory skills. But again, that could just as easily be explained by training as by synesthesia.

Your arguments are good, but I don’t quite get why you so much want that there can’t be extraordinary memory.

Memory is a feature of brains, and brains do differ significantly. Memory of events is correlated with increased brain activity, we can modify (augment or decrease) memory retention by using specific drugs (many experiments on rats, I don’t know for humans). Hypermnesia is a well reported phenomena, and most people who report extraordinary memory of some kinds of events don’t use that to earn money or to make memory shows, they just report it. Synesthesia is a real, low level phenomena, pretty much understood in its causes. Extraordinary memory claims don’t contradict anything we know about the brain. The fact that some memories are innately good doesn’t mean that we can’t reach such performances with training : it just means that some people don’t need training. And Luria was a great scientist, he is recognised as an excellent observator.

I know that in the magic/entertaining world, we have to be really skeptic of everything. But claims of exceptional memories are not in the same category than claims of supernatural powers. “in principle, it is not possible to have individual variations in memory abilities, with some exceptional individuals at one end” is a very dubious claim.

I don’t want to take anything away from others’ accomplishments, but I think extraordinary claims have an effect on what humans collectively know about the mind, so I like to remain skeptical until I see all other possibilities eliminated. :slight_smile:

I wouldn’t say that the official explanations are impossible, but there are still other possibilities:

Orlando Serrell’s website says:

As Orlando made a frantic dash to first base, the baseball struck him on the left side of his head.

Orlando fell to the ground and stayed there for a while. Moments later, he got up and continued to play baseball. “I didn’t tell my parents, therefore, I had no medical treatment for the accident,” Says Orlando.

There is no way to verify that the accident happened or what kind of accident it was. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen, but with all extraordinary claims, every alternate explanation should be eliminated. He had the accident on August 17, 1979, but the media didn’t pick up the story until 20+ years later in 2002, according to the website. What if he is doing the same thing as the people with “superior autobiographical memory” and has been writing down the weather for every day since 1979? The accident might not have anything to do with it, or it could even be an indirect cause.

I wonder how difficult it is to train this ability. Does anyone know?

Great point… The more I think about it and the more I hear, the less I believe that “S” was a “natural”. It’s already known from Luria’s book that Shereshevsky was a professional mnemonist and showman, so I am feeling skeptical that he had any special abilities beyond what could be explained by memory techniques.

Maybe someone in his family stumbled across memory techniques and was enthusiastic enough about it that a few other members of the family began dabbling in memorization? The method of loci has been around for a long time. Variations of the major system were developed in Europe between the 16th Century and his lifetime, so a person who grew up in a bookstore could have learned about memory techniques.

Some of these claims are nearly in the “supernatural” category, including Tammet and Shereshevsky. Examples: memorizing 20,000 digits of pi based on their colors and shapes or remembering speeches word-for-word after a single listen.

These incredible claims have never been seen in another human being, the research appears flawed in both cases, and they both made a living with their memory abilities (financial incentive). I don’t reject the possibility of exceptional memories, but I still haven’t seen any exceptional memorization that can’t be explained by techniques, years of repetition, and/or magic tricks.

EDIT: I think that lack of exception memory would be a good discovery, because it would mean that most people could also achieve these feats. :slight_smile:

You are just biased cause you spend hours and hours on this and don’t want to accept people with natural capabilities to have it any easier. :stuck_out_tongue:

But back to the point, do you really find it that far fetched to believe some of these to have advantages? In the interview with Dennis he do believe it helps him. I don’t know if it would be the same, but imagine if you could chunk those lines of numbers in competition into different colors. Some of the high scores done have been discredited because they were chunked on different lines and this may be similar. Also you could ask if having these vivid emotions and colors will help in the recall. We may not talk of extreme differences in performance, but in the future there will be smaller and smaller margins, and having just a little extra help may go a long way.

Has anyone seen that guy who (supposedly) is exceptional in drawing from memory? They took him up in a helicopter and later he drew a detailed map over the city.

Of course they want to make good television out of all of these people, but you got to admit that many of these feats are pretty amazing. Kim Peek did have large brain abnormalities, is it far fetched to believe that something like this may improve some aspects of memory beyond what is possible for others? I don’t think so. Regarding Orlando it certainly is possible for everyone to memorize this, but personally I would choose to find something more useful (and not fake being “special” if I used some techniques for it). :slight_smile:

I did personally meet an autistic person not long ago. He did the whole “what day was that date on” thing. Of course I wasn’t as impressed as others, knowing I can learn this myself. But still its is very interesting how he has learned this and utilizes it differently than a mnemonist.

I’m a skeptic. I would be quite happy to find evidence of extraordinary memory not explained by training. But just as with any other extraordinary claim, that needs to be backed up with good evidence - ideally experiments under carefully controlled conditions, peer review and scrutiny, and preferably replication of the findings in other individuals.

As you say, there is variation in people’s brains and abilities (for example, there is variation in intelligence measured by IQ), much of which appears to be innate. I agree it would be very dubious to claim that there is no variation at all in innate memory abilities. And noone is claiming that here.

The real question is, how much of the abilities of extraordinary memorisers is explained by innate abilities and how much by training? And how much training was there? And what systems were used - conventional mnemonics, or other improvised systems based on synaesthesia, or no system at all?

The problem with much of the literature on the subject - such as Luria’s study of S - is that the question of how much is due to training is not properly investigated. Luria doesn’t investigate how S originally learned the method of loci, how many hours of training he put in, and how S’s memory compares with people of normal ability who train their memory. Without that evidence, it is impossible to say how much is training and how much is natural. And failing to understand or investigate training has led Luria, and many of his readers, to a false conclusion - that natural ability is the only possible explanation for S’s ability.

I suspect that if training is fully controlled for, the variation in natural memory ability might be found to be a lot less spectacular than people who have read about cases like S and Tammet would expect. That’s exactly what is suggested by existing research which does examine the role of training and practice - such as the “Routes for Remembering” study which studied Tammet and 9 other memory competitors, along with untrained control subjects.

I’ll believe it when I see it, as the saying goes. Even though the competition itself has only been around for 20 years mnemonics themselves have been around for hundreds of years, it would have been well documented by now if somebody walked in and obliterated any memory test you put in front of them.

I’m not talking about obliterating the tests, but more on the 1 % improvement that will set the record.