Memory Champs Use Mnemonics—But Students Need More

A New York Times report on “the extreme sport” of remembering confirms what psychology instructors have long taught:  the power of mnemonic aids, especially organized images, to enable memory performance.  We humans are really good at retaining visual images, and we’re much better at later reproducing visualizable words (bicycle) than abstract words (process).  Thus it can help, when remembering a short grocery list, to use the peg-word system, with numerically ordered items—bun, shoe, tree, door, etc.—and to hang the grocery items on those images.

Likewise, reports the Times article, all the competitors in a recent world memory contest used a “memory palace,” by associating to-be-remembered numbers, words, or cards with well-learned places, such as the rooms of a childhood home.  Challengers who claim to have invented an alternative method inevitably “come in last, or close to it,” noted one world-class competitor.

Memory researchers who study these memorists report that they are, as you might expect, smart.  But they also have unusual capacities for focused attention and holding information in working memory. 

Yet, like you and me successfully forgetting previous locations of our car in the parking lot, they also need to be able to replace their place-item associations with new items. In this they are unlike students, who, if they are to become educated persons, need to retain information for months and years to come.  And for that there is no easy substitute for other well-researched memory aids, such as spaced practice, active rehearsal, and the memory consolidation that comes with a solid night’s sleep.