Savantism and Memory Competitions

I’d agree that some people have it much easier than others when learning memory techniques, but just haven’t seen any solid evidence for near-magical memory powers yet. I have an open mind about it, but think that people should be skeptical around mentalist performers, especially once the media jumps in. :slight_smile:

Something like synesthesia may give an advantage, but does it create ability beyond what someone without synesthesia could achieve? It would be interesting to find out how many of the top competitors have synesthesia.

I don’t know much about him. Could his ability be similar to chess grand masters’ ability to memorize chess boards after looking at them for a few seconds? If a brain is familiar with patterns, it seems like it can encode those patterns into small chunks and store a lot of information. Is he is a trained artist?

EDIT: What I am asking is could (not “would”) others learn that skill?

It isn’t far fetched – it just seems like there is no solid evidence, while alternate explanations remain.

In the other people who have the same ability it may be related to obsessive-compulsive behavior. What if the accident triggered that behavior and not just a seemingly-magical ability to recall memories? I’m not automatically discounting what he can do, but only saying: let’s eliminate all the other possible explanations first, especially since there is already an explanation about how other people are able to do the same thing. :slight_smile:

Being on the autistic spectrum doesn’t prevent someone from using memory techniques or learning mental calculation. Did you ask him how he learned? :slight_smile:

In my experience, in research on savants there is a surprising amount of bad science and media exaggeration, with extraordinary claims accepted without anywhere near enough skepticism.

For example, in savant researcher Darold Treffert’s book “Extraordinary people” (published 1989) there is a section where he discusses “Extrasensory perception” among savants. That’s definately in the category of the supernatural, and reason to be cautious of what Treffert reports. That matters, because so many reports of savants come from Treffert - a lot of reports of Kim Peek and Daniel Tammet are based on his writings.

While Treffert only occasionally talks of supernatural extrasensory perception, and may well not believe in it, he does appear to believe in a theory of “genetic memory” that looks pseudoscientific to me. He believes that some savants “know things they have never learned”. I once challenged Treffert in the comments on an online debate (in the comments here:, which, to his credit, he responded to. However, he made extraordinary claims - that savants could do calendar calculations even when they had never seen a calendar, or calculate prime numbers spontaneously without any kind of learning.

He appears to have a theory of “genetic memory” whereby he thinks that memories are passed down through generations. I think that’s in the category of pseudoscience.

We also see this kind of claim in Daniel Tammet. He appears to claim to be able to innately recognise prime numbers with synaesthesia, without having learned or memorised the prime numbers. That’s an extraordinary claim. Recognising large prime numbers is a difficult computation - there are no really fast calculation shortcuts. Could human beings really have evolved to have a special ability to automatically carry out these complex calculations and recognise prime numbers?

I find it disappointing that so many of these claims go unchallenged. We need more skeptics in the field!

Just stumbled upon this thread and I must say that this is a really lively and very interesting discussion!

Now I don’t have much to add, simply because I think that most of the relevant points have been made already. But here is one point I don’t think anyone has mentioned (at least not out right) yet:

There seems to be a very strong divide in opinion about perfect memory between MT users and non-mnemonist “laymen”. I have yet to meet a fellow mnemonist who thinks photographic/eideitic memory exists, and contrarily I have (hardly) met anyone not familiar with memorysports who were not firm “believers” in photographic memory. Why is this?

I’m a medical student, and though our time spent on studying human memory was short we were still thaught that eideitic memory was indeed possible but very uncommon. Still, in terms of statistical significance and rigorous scientifically based empircal data, knowledge about this subject is so scarce that the whole matter is still almost entirely in the dark. Hence, I see no path for myself but to consider the legend of innate photographic memory a fairy tale and join the non-believers… Until one day I am, perhaps, proved wrong.

(btw, I think “Moonwalking with Einstein” has some very excellent chapters about exactly this “dilemma”)

I just ordered a copy of the 1989 editing on abebooks for $1. I have to see what is in the ESP chapter. :slight_smile:

I agree… skepticism is good for science. I have an open mind, but it requires evidence.

Here is a list that might be interesting:

Even a professional illusionist, Derren Brown, made the list. :slight_smile:

This is interesting too:

Update: more links are on the does photographic memory exist? page.

Half the people on this forum would make that list.

The copy of Extraordinary People: Understanding “Idiot Savants” (1989 First Edition) that I bought online just arrived. I haven’t read it, but looked up the parts on ESP and reincarnation in the index. Here are some excerpts:

Pages xxv - xxvi:

The ability or brilliance... generally occurs in one of the following areas: calendar calculating; music, almost exclusively limited to the piano; lightning calculating and matematics; art, including painting, drawing or sculpting; mechanical ability; prodigious memory (mnemonism); or very rarely, unusual sensory discrimination (smell or touch) or extrasensory perception.

Page 96 “Extrasensory Perception”:

Dr. Bernard Rimland [bio] describes several instances of extrasensory perception in his autistic savants. In his sample of approximately 5,400 autistic children, 561 cases, or approximately 10 percent, were reported to have special abilities. ... In one case, the parent reported that "teachers have also noticed that George probably has ESP. He seems to be very psychic."

There are some more anecdotal examples, but no commentary on whether it seems far-fetched or reasonable.

Page 121, on abilities passed down through reincarnation:

Some have explained the savant in terms of reincarnation. Barbara Boudreau recalls that one day some friends who believe that to be the case asked Ellen to listen to a Mozart piece she had never heard before. Near the end they stopped the piece and asked Ellen to play it for them. She obligingly did and, according to the friends at least, continued to play the piece beyond the point at which they had stopped--"as if" she had heard the whole number--and played it just as Mozart had written it. They concluded that the only way she possibly could have known what to play after that point was if she had played it before in some earlier life: an explanation which no one can confirm or refute, but which is, nonetheless, an explanation held by some.

I am surprised by the lack of skepticism, but maybe there was a different way of thinking back in 1989. I wonder if the newer editions say the same thing. If 10% of savants might have ESP, wouldn’t that be one of the most important facts to verify?

Treffert’s views on ESP were greeted with plenty skepticism back in 1989. He published a journal article which passed on similar reports of ESP at about the same time, and there were skeptical responses and letters to the journal. See here for an example:

Treffert is quite rightly criticised when he passes on ideas about ESP without proper evidence and skepticism. It’s a shame we don’t see the same skepticism applied from the scientific community when he makes claims of other extraordinary feats, like “photographic memories”, and “genetic memory”.

Treffert’s later book, “Islands of Genius”, also mentions ESP. It acknowledges the earlier controversy, but then passes on more reports of ESP, and quotes a later researcher who has a theory that quantum physics can explain ESP abilities.

Indeed - any scientist who could demonstrate ESP under controlled conditions would probably win a Nobel prize.

I just searched inside the 2006 edition on Amazon (now titled Extraordinary People : Understanding Savant Syndrome) and the ESP and reincarnation sections are still there.

No one has jumped on the chance to prove it or bothered to edit it out in the 17 years between the editions?

Aren’t these the two leading researchers on savants?

I am becoming more and more skeptical. :slight_smile:

I’m not sure if this link has been mentioned on the site yet, but here is a list of savants that I think is maintained by Darold Treffert:

I haven’t reread Mind of a Mnemonist yet, but I was looking at some excerpts that I thought might fit this thread. Luria calls these methods “synesthesia”:

Number shapes:

Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person; 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a moustache; 8 a very stout woman—a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his moustache.

Method of loci:

I know that I have to be on guard if I'm not to overlook something. What I do now is to make my images larger. Take the word egg I told you about before. It was so easy to lose sight of it; now I make it a larger image, and when I lean it up against the wall of the building, I see to it that the place is lit up by having a street lamp nearby… I don't put things in dark passageways anymore… Much better if there's some light around, it's easier to spot then.

Linking method:

Earlier, if I were to remember the word America, I'd have to stretch a long rope across the ocean, from Gorky Street to America, so as not to lose the way. This isn't necessary any more.say I'm given the word elephant: I'd see a zoo. If they gave me America, I'd set up an image of Uncle Sam; if Bismarck, I'd place my image near the statue of Bismarck; and if I had the word transcendent, it's in my teacher Sherbiny standing and looking at a monument… I don't go through all those complicated operations anymore, getting myself to different countries in order to remember words.

That last quote was in the context of not needing such elaborate images any more, which I think is normal for trained mnemonists.

It seems that Luria is completely unaware about the existence of memory techniques. Luria calls this technique using “complexes of synesthetic reactions which, as before, serve to guarantee an accurate recall.”

If, say, I'm given a phrase I don't understand, such as Ibi bene ubi patria, I have an image of Benya (bene) and his father (pater). I'd simply have to remember that they are off in the woods somewhere in the little house having an argument...

It sounds like “S” is describing regular mnemonic techniques, not synesthesia.

But the title of the book is Mind of a Mnemonist, right? If so, do you think that the author has no idea what word “mnemonist” mean? I think that if the author got this word from somewhere, he had to come across the meaning of “mnemonics”.

By the way, good job, I agree with your idea. It seems like a description of mnemonics to me, too.

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Luria knew that “S” was working as a professional mnemonist, but he is calling standard mnemonic techniques “synesthesia”. It makes me think that he doesn’t know that these aspects are not synesthesia.

I’m rereading the book today and will post a long update when I’m done. :slight_smile:

Has anyone heard of Jason Padgett? This is interesting:

I haven’t read this yet, but it is also by Darold Treffert:

I thought people here might be interested.

It only took a few minutes to explain last night to a friend exactly why daniel tammet was a fake and didn’t possess extraordinary abilities beyond what anyone else can achieve. In fact if one simply looks at the evidence it is quite obvious, the fact that daniel corney (tammet’s original last name) claimed his seizures gave him psychic abilities long before he was trying to pass off that they gave him his savant abilities is quite interesting indeed.

All the evidence needed to discount daniel tammet can be found by searching around these forums, you will find everything from the fact that he participated in a memory competition using mnemonic techniques TWICE before he finally realized he would never be the best, and left to try tricking the world into thinking he was something extra special. He does have some pretty amazing /trained/ abilities, but as you will see from his prior records, they don’t even come close to touching the top memory competitors. I think in a way daniel was quite smart to start up a scam, people are so gullible and have a tendency to believe. If you don’t believe people are willing to believe just about anything, I suggest you watch the darren brown episode: Fear and Faith.

It’s natural to want to believe and keep an open mind, but never keep it so open that your brains fall out.

A study in Sweden showed that blind people reading the braille-system-texts can develop a technique where they let one finger “feel” one line and simultaneously another finger is “feeling” the row below. They are thus reading two lines simultaneously and they make it a coherent text in their mind and can recapitulate it correctly. Maybe this is a technique that is harder to do with eyes than fingers since eyes are harder to “split to different tasks” than fingers?

But it is amazing how they can also interpret two streams of “text” at the same time…

BTW, does anybody know if born-blind persons can learn to use the loci system? Can they create inner images of things and places? Can they create something other than what I think of when I say “images”?

Could a blind person create some “feel-image” of words? Of braille-text?

Maybe the finger memories of a blind person is potentially more capable that seeing peoples? Could a blind person train and compete in memory championships provided they get a braille-print of the numbers to memorize…?

Just rambling maybe :slight_smile:

See also this thread:

I am not a competitor as of yet, I will be later this year hopefully, but I am a synesthete. Like most people with synesthesia, I had no idea I was thinking any way different to others. In my case, I would say that it definitely provides me with ‘some’ advantage in some ways. The fact that I see numbers and letters in my mind’s eye in set colours can help. It has helped me with names for a long time. It can help with spelling, especially when trying to determine which version of a name that can be spelled differently. EG: Graeme to me looks different to Graham in regards to colour.

On the other hand, it can hinder me. I have found some issue when trying to formulate and formalise associations that simply contradict what I have in my mind. Eg, When I was associating people with decks of cards, I had issues with dark names that were to be associated with diamonds or vice versa. I found that most dark names to be associated with spades or clubs were a lot easier than neutral, other coloured names.

Having said all this, I don’t think that it gives me much advantage in the scheme of things, as like anything, you have to make a conscious effort in order to compete at a high level. Interesting topic.

Here’s a related thread that people might be interested in: math experts are made not born.

Yusnier Viera can calculate 90 dates in 60 seconds.

Has anyone read this:
Fragments of Genius: The Strange Feats of Idiots Savants
I corresponded with the author about his other works until he passed on suddenly. But this work I missed. He makes the impression of a reliable professional.
Your input please…