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.
In the democratic west it seems we are going through a political crisis. We dislike our politicians and, worse, we dislike our political systems. This is dangerous. Where political systems are held in contempt the opportunity arises for demagogues and dictators to emerge.
Political systems exist to make our lives better. If they fail to do that then we may as well do without them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be happy with the systems themselves but surely we should feel more well-disposed towards them than we currently do. People who live in countries with oppressive regimes yearn for the freedoms that democracy brings - so we should surely hope that our democratic regimes can inspire pride in the way they work.
Why, then, do we feel such contempt for the political system? I’m sure that there are a number of reasons, but one must have to do with the fact that many of us, rightly at least some of the time, view our politicians as dishonest and inauthentic. They don’t say what they really think, they don’t answer questions and they don’t keep their promises. This is true whatever party they belong to. The only politicians who are popular are those who come across as “unspun”, who say what they think and do what they do irrespective of what people think about them.
One reason for this malaise is a lack of respect by politicians, by the media who report them and by us who vote for them for the rules of good analytical thinking. The aim of analytical thinking is to get to the truth. By getting to the truth we make better decisions. This, therefore, should be vital in politics. Of course, we won’t always get those decisions right but even in cases where we go wrong, we can console ourselves that we have done our best and that our reasoning was as good as it could have been, given the knowledge we had available at the time.
However, all too often other considerations take priority over good analysis. Too often in politics the priority appears to be to beat one’s opponent rather than make the right decision. A good policy may not be implemented because it was proposed by an opponent. So the country suffers because the benefits to the politician and the benefits to the community as a whole are in conflict.
What, then, can we do about this? One thing we can all do is demand of our politicians that they respect the rules of analytical thinking and publicise each and every occasion where they do not. We must keep them honest.
The media does not help. Newspapers and other organisations have their own agendas. These agendas may well not be those of the people as a whole and for organisations supposedly devoted to reporting the truth, their commitment to that truth can often be marginal at best. We must demand better of them and until they improve, we must treat whatever they say with scepticism. For a democracy to function well, its people must be well informed. We should demand that our media organisations publish only the truth. As for our politicians, so must we require from our media the highest standards of analytical thinking.
Finally, we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility. The decisions taken by politicians affect us all, so we should all take an interest in them. The democratic experiment that was Ancient Athens required the participation of all its citizens: because any citizen might have to speak in public, it was considered necessary that they all be educated in the arts of rhetoric and critical analysis.
We should hold ourselves to the same standard. Not only should we ensure that we take an interest in the decisions that affect our lives, we should aim to ensure that our views on those decisions are underpinned by the highest quality of analysis of which we are capable. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we would hold our politicians and our media. As such, it is absolutely essential that we are familiar with the techniques of analytical thinking and that we should apply them in all aspects of our lives.
There are a number of ways in which our thinking can go wrong. One of these are mistakes due to what are known as cognitive biases. These are mistakes that the brain is hard-wired to make. It might seem odd that the brain is set up to make mistakes, but of course it evolved to solve the problems and challenges that would have confronted our distant ancestors living as groups of hunter-gatherers. These would in all likelihood have been problems concerned with immediate short-term survival such as finding food, shelter, avoiding dangerous predators as well as living long enough to find a mate and to procreate.
In the rich west, we have largely solved these kinds of problems, but we still inhabit the same brains and bodies as early humans. We are therefore not designed to solve the difficult reasoning problems that confront us now. Our brains take short cuts and arrive at quick. effective and practical solutions. Thinking through abstract problems is not really what they are designed for and we are lucky that we can do it at all.
An area where our brains let us down is thinking about risk and probability. One aspect of this is reflected in the kinds of stories that are covered by the news media. They give disproportionate coverage to one-off events that result in large numbers of deaths, such as plane crashes, while ignoring the fact that more deaths occur in car crashes because each individual car crash is responsible for only one or two deaths.
This can lead to poor decisions. After plane crashes more people drive. This actually increases risk. It is much more likely that we will be killed driving to the airport than on the plane to our destination. It also distorts government policies. Since these large accidents are more newsworthy, they garner attention and politicians, responding to what is in the news, feel pressured to act. If they acted rationally, however, they would respond to the greatest threats to life rather than the most newsworthy ones.
Another point worth noting is that accidents, terrorist atrocities, even wars, while tragedies for the individuals involved, have virtually no effect on humanity as a whole. The only day this century that the human population has not risen was the day of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which 230,000 people died. The human population is currently rising at about 75 million people a year or 205,000 a day. This means that none but the most extreme events have any noticeable effect on the number of people on the planet.
I thought I’d share with you one of the reasons that I think this is so important.
We humans have been blessed in our brains with the best computer that the universe has so far produced and it has enabled us to have lives filled with so much more opportunity than our ancestors. Without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you like this now. However, we are in many ways still subject to a huge number of selfish primitive urges and if we’re not careful, we might end up ruining the world just at the point where we really should be able to understand it and use it for everybody’s benefit.
As far as I am concerned the only way to solve the problems we have all created is by thinking about them. This can be hard, sometimes unrewarding and take time. It can be so tempting to go for the easy solution and this pursuit of the easy solution in my view is one of the factors that leads to the terrorist acts that seem to plague the world right now.
I suspect that part of the mindset that produces these acts is the belief that it would be so much easier if a particular group of people, whether those of a different religion or political persuasion, just ceased to exist or was cowed into submission. This, aside from the devastating pain and hurt this causes, is as a result of lazy thinking. Actually solving the problem of us all living together is hard, really hard - so much easier to just get rid of people who are different from us. This is why it is so important to commit to developing the brain / mind. We should be trying to solve these problems in such a way that everyone is able to live the life that they would aspire to live.
I’d be interested to hear what anybody else out there thinks.