Knowing that someone else can do something or has done something can hugely affect whether you believe it is possible that you can do it. This is why the first person to do something is lauded but the second is often forgotten. Humans were on this planet for 200,000 years before any of them successfully climbed Mount Everest. Now 100-200 people climb it every year, but we only remember the names of the first - Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay The four-minute mile barrier was broken in Oxford in 1952 by Sir Roger Bannister. These days, it would be an unusual mile race that did not have at least one athlete finishing in under four minutes, but it is Roger Bannister’s name that is forever associated with the mile.
These same considerations apply with mental feats. If you know someone else can do something you are more likely to do it yourself because you know it can be done. You are also more likely simply to have a go at a challenge if you know someone else is capable of doing it.
One mental challenge is to become a memory grandmaster. As of 2014 there are 149 memory grandmasters in the world. To become one you have to memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour, memorise the order of ten packs of shuffled cards, also in an hour, and memorise the order of one pack of shuffled cards in under two minutes.
On the subject of card memorisation, the record for memorising one pack of cards is 21.19 seconds or 2.5 cards a second. This record is held by a German, Simon Reinhard.
This is just the tip of the memory iceberg. There are many other amazing feats that have been recorded over time. Paul Morphy, an American chess player, could reputedly recall every game he had ever played and was capable of playing multiple blindfold games simultaneously.
Cardinal Caspar Mezzofanti, who lived in 18th century Italy, was a polyglot who was able to speak over 30 languages fluently. Given that fluency requires between 10,000 and 30,000 words, he would have known upwards of 300,000 words, possibly as many as a million.
Devout followers of various religions will completely memorise their respective holy books. Muslims who memorise the Qu’ran are called Hafiz. Shas Pollak Jews could not only memorise the Babylonian Talmud of more than 5,000 pages, but they were able to state where on the page a particular word appeared.
Possibly the most outstanding feat of memory, as well as arguably the most pointless, is the memorisation of pi. For those who have forgotten their maths, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an irrational number which means that it has an infinite number of non-repeating digits after the decimal point. It begins 3.14159 26535 and continues forever without any pattern emerging that would make memorisation easier. Computers have calculated it to 13 trillion decimal places.
In 2005, Chao Lu of China recited pi to 67,890 decimal places from memory. It took him over 24 hours. A year later Akira Haraguchi of Japan recited it to 100,000 decimal places, although his record was not ratified. There are probably more useful things that you can do with your memory. Especially since it is possible to calculate the circumference of the entire universe to the accuracy of a single sub-atomic proton using just the first 39 digits of pi.
This leads on to my final point. You do not have to be super-intelligent to have a super memory. In fact, many great memorisers were of average or below average intelligence. Many a time it is more a matter of application and determination rather than talent. The pi memorisers spent many years in their pursuit. This fact alone might demonstrate that intelligence and memory are not necessarily related. You might think that spending years memorising pi is not the most intelligent way of passing your limited time on this planet and you may well be right! It does, however, show what is possible if you have sufficient determination.