Modern-day life involves having a memory for numbers such as dates, phone numbers, pin numbers, bank accounts etc. Unfortunately, numbers are one of the most difficult things to remember since they are purely abstract. It is easier to visualise a monkey dancing then it is to visualise the number 5834593218. A technique used to memorise numbers is “chunking”. Chunking involves taking a long number and breaking it down into smaller chunks. However, some people have remarkable memories and would easily be able to recall tables of numbers and then years later still be able to recall the same numbers.
There are two kinds of memory- short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is the kind of memory our brain uses to store small pieces of information needed right away, like someone’s name when you meet them for the first time. Research has demonstrated that short-term memory’s capacity is about 7 pieces of information. This is referred to as Miller’s Magic Number 7 (Miller,1956). Miller suggested that people tend to only be able to hold on average, 7 chunks of information in their short-term memory before needing to further process the information for longer storage. For instance, most people would be able to remember a 7-digit phone number but would struggle to remember a 10-digit number.
Long-term memory on the other hand is for things you don’t have to remember immediately. When you study for a test, that’s long-term memory at work. Memorable life events also get stored in long-term memory.
In the early 20th century, psychologists have identified numerous cases of people with remarkable memories. Their memories allow them to learn and retain new information with total accuracy. These people are called “mnemonists”.
With regards exceptional memory, a question that has persisted about this line of research is whether the brains of these people are distinct from the organs of others. A 2011 study suggested that there may be real differences in the brain structures of these people. MRI studies of 11 study participants demonstrated that multiple areas in the temporal and parietal lobes tied to autobiographical memory were significantly larger than the same in the control group. This remarkable memory is not a “genius” trait and those in the study did not exhibit better cognition.
The advantages of autobiographical memory are not as obvious as they might seem. Many who possess it struggle with how they can use it in their daily lives. One of the most famous mnemonists was Solomon Veniaminovitch Serashevski. He experienced significant difficulty living a normal life due to his inability to forget anything he learned. He also struggled with simple tasks such as reading whilst eating due to the printed words clashing with what he was eating. We may all want to have a better memory but having an exceptional one certainly has it’s drawbacks!
Written by Rebekka Johnston