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.
We have two types of temporal memory: long-term and short-term. Clearly if you want to remember something for a long time, you should do whatever you can to shift the idea into long-term memory. There are many ways of making memories stick, but one factor to bear in mind is that the trace theory of memory suggests that most memories tend to fade over time and this is certainly what we all seem to experience.
When we encounter something new, we will forget a large proportion of the detail within the first twenty-four hours. Over the next few days, weeks and months we will forget even more although the rate at which we forget will drop off. Eventually, there will come a point when we only remember a small amount of the initial detail, but that small amount will be quite resilient. It is unlikely that we will forget any more.
To combat this fall off in recall, one thing you can do is to review information regularly in your mind. If you review the experience immediately after you have it, the following day, and then schedule a series of further reviews at increasing intervals - say after a week, then a month, then three months and six months, this will help fix all the details in your long-term memory and you will be unlikely to forget it any more.
There are times when we all find that our memories fail us. Often this happens at the most inopportune moments, such as when we meet up with someone that we have recently been introduced to but simply cannot remember their name.
It might seem depressing then to learn that throughout human history there have been many people who have had prodigious memories apparently beyond the hopes of ordinary mortals. One example out of many is ex-world memory champion Dominic O’Brien who was able to remember the order of every card in 52 shuffled packs. However, people who can perform feats such as these are generally no more intelligent than average and do not have genetically superior memories. They have simply trained their memories to work for them.
If you want to improve your memory, rather than try and remember ideas as abstract concepts, make vivid mental pictures of them, allow trains of thought to link them to other thoughts and memories you already have, use systems such as memory palaces, where you link new memories to specific locations that you are already familiar with and reinforce your memories by returning to them regularly.
Strings of numbers are generally difficult to recall. Fortunately, most people now store phone numbers on their mobile phones so there is no need to recall them. However, that means that we have fallen out of the habit of recalling numbers.
It is a good habit to practise memorising sequences of numbers. If you lose your phone it might just save your life! We are more likely to remember numbers if they can be made meaningful in some way. Meaningful numbers might be, for example, your birthday or those of your friends and family, perhaps the number of your house or the year your favourite team won the FA Cup. If you can incorporate these meaningful numbers into the sequence you want to recall, that will make it easier.
For other numbers that don’t have any obvious meaning, you can link numbers to images. Do this by converting a number to letters. 23 would be BC (B being the second letter of the alphabet, C being the third). This might make you picture Bill Clinton. You are more likely to remember the image of a person you know or a famous person than a number. You can do the same for all numbers 00 - 99 and then link these images together to remember sequences of numbers.
You are more likely to recall information if it is meaningful to you in some way. One illustration of this is the effect known as the baker / Baker paradox. You are more likely to recall someone whose profession is a baker than someone whose name is Baker, even though the word is the same in both cases.
When you think of a baker you are likely to think of bread, the smell and taste of it, your local bakery, your favourite sandwich, feeding ducks in a pond with bread and so on. This web of associations ensures that you are likely to remember the profession. Contrast that with the person whose name is Baker. In this case there are no immediate associations.
The more associations with the information that you want to recall, the more likely you are to remember it. So if when you meet someone, you associate their name to information that you are already familiar with, you will be more likely to remember it. If you meet someone whose name is Baker, link it to all of the associations that you would have when you think of a bakery.