Good practice sessions are the real memory vitamins, stated professor K. Anders Ericsson, at the start of his lecture. It turned out to be one of the most impressive psychology lectures I attended. Ericsson, not only an expert in memory, but also the expert in expertise, totally convinced his audience that with the right practice – or memory vitamins – any one could become a memory champion.
‘Talent is overrated’ is one of Ericsson’s famous quotes. Even more famous is his 10,000 hour rule, which states that in order to become an expert in any field – from playing the violin to playing soccer – one has to practice that many hours. Writer Malcolm Gladwell brought this rule to public attention in his bestselling book ‘Outliers’.
‘What do you think?’ Anders Ericsson asked his audience. ‘How many consecutive pushups can a man do without bathroom breaks?’
After a few guesses from the audience, he revealed: ‘In 1980 the record was set at 10.500 pushups, but then they changed the rules to as many pushups one can do in 24 hours. That record is now set at over 20.000. The record for one-arm pushups is 8000 and the one for one-finger pushups is around 250.’
By this time, Anders Ericsson really got the hang of it. ‘Perhaps the most impressive one is Johann Hurlinger from Austria. He walked from Vienna to Paris. On his hands. He did this by walking on his hands 10 hours a day, for 55 days.’
What has this to do with memory vitamins or techniques, you might wonder. The professor was about to reveal that.
By quoting his bible – The Guinness Book of Records – Anders Ericsson wanted to prove a point: the limits of our physics are not as strict as we might think. With the right kind of practice, anything seems possible.
The same accounts for mental capacity, specifically memory, K. Anders Ericsson continued. And – oh yes – he had some world records to prove it.
Perhaps the most amazing of them all was Rajan Mahadevan, who could memorize 50.000 digits of pi (a mathematical constant with an infinite number of decimal places: 3.14159…etc.). To give his audience a feel of how much that was, Anders Ericsson had written a tenth of these digits on his slide.
This was all impressive, sure. But I could not help myself to be distracted by all these weird looking record holders. They had ‘nerd’ written all over their glasses and the parting in their hair strongly suggested a lack of social life – or a girl friend. Were these record holders not born this way?
Professor K. Anders Ericsson was about to take my skepticism away with arguably his most interesting data. He had studied memory span for digits. An average person can memorize a list of 7 random digits – this may vary a little, but the largest proportion of adults have a digit span between 5 and 9 digits. Most – if not all theories – said at the time that this digit span was restricted and that it was impossible to stretch those boundaries (this feels intuitively right: a 10 digit phone number is quite hard to remember at once, even though you know the first numbers are always the same).
Memory experts use deliberate practice sessions as memory vitamins
Memory-expert Anders Ericsson proved the theories wrong. He started practicing the digit span with a 20-year old student, who, okay, looked like a nerd as well, but had an average digit span (7 numbers). After one year, in which the student trained every second or third day for one hour, his digit span had increased to 82. So if you were to read to him more than 80 digits, the student would recall them all.
How amazing is that?! To get a feel of how amazing it is, read the following numbers once, and then try to recall them:
3 5 9 0 1 9 4 3 9 0 2 8 4 4 2 1 6 4 6 5
Anders Ericsson’s student could do that, times four. After a year of just three to four hours of taking memory vitamins – practicing, that is.
Anders Ericsson did not leave it with one student only. He and his colleagues repeated the same results in several studies, with different groups of adults. His words all of a sudden did not sound so strange anymore: ‘Anyone can do it.’
Anyone can become a memory champion with the right practice sessions as memory vitamins
How? Well, the students that improved their memory span were trained to memorize in a better way. The details of what techniques or memory vitamins work is the subject of my future post on memory vitamins, for now it is interesting to note that instead of solely rehearsing the numbers, Anders Ericsson had his students ‘meaningfully coding the numbers in memory structures they developed’. These techniques formed the memory vitamins.
Even though the memories of Anders Ericsson’s students look like those of experts, they are not. Remember, to become an expert in any field, one needs at least 10,000 hours of practice (about 10 years). Practice sessions are the memory vitamins.
But just rehearsing is not the way to become a world champion. Deliberate practice sessions are the key memory vitamins, found Anders Ericsson.
Read more about how to become an expert here.
Professor K. Anders Ericsson’s lecture on expertise can be seen here (if you don’t mind the bad quality of the video).